Crowds of students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School anticipate the sweet sound of a bell every school day at 10:54 a.m. Students grab their coats and wallets and head out the door with a hearty appetite. They’re off to grab lunch at one of downtown Bethesda’s food establishments—on their own dime.
Open lunch is not a new policy at B-CC High School. The popular lunch option has been around for as long as one can remember, according to Vice Principal Bennie Green.
“I’ve been here for five years and open lunch has always existed, so it’s probably been more than 10 or 20 years,” Green said.
Green says students are always waiting for that 10:54 a.m. bell, which marks the start of a 40-minute break for lunch, socializing and a midday stroll.
“Open lunch lets students get outside and enjoy the fresh air. They can eat wherever they want and get a break from the classroom,” he says. “It’s really popular among our students at B-CC.”
Micah English, 17, a senior at B-CC, said she and her friends look forward to open lunch every day. It gives them a nice break from classes, English added.
“The best part about open lunch is that we get to leave school, stretch our legs, and can have lunch at a variety of Bethesda restaurants,” she said. “My favorites for open lunch are Chipotle, California Tortilla and Starbucks—for when I need a caffeine boost. Chipotle is probably the most popular among all the students.”
Junior Chad Vincino, 17, also prefers to take advantage of B-CC’s open lunch program.
“I like open lunch because I can hang out with my friends and get out of the school for a little bit. I know that the cafeteria food is trying to get healthier but there are healthy choices out here, like Cava has good salads,” Vincino said. “There’s so much more selection outside of the cafeteria.”
See what other area schools are doing to promote healthy eating in the cafeteria by reading our Lunch Lessons series.
Some students only go to the cafeteria to heat up lunches they brought from home, like Alexia Thorpe, 17, also a senior at B-CC.
“I’ll go into the cafeteria to use the microwave if I brought a lunch that needs to be heated up. But when I don’t bring my lunch I usually eat out because I prefer fresh food,” Thorpe said. “When you go out you typically think food is fresh because they make it in front of you and have a lot of different choices.”
But open lunch doesn’t just benefit the students; it also benefits downtown Bethesda food establishments.
“It has been a really successful program because it works for students and for people who own food establishments in the area,” Green said. “Those restaurants get two large lunch crowds—people who work in Bethesda and who are taking their lunch hour and then also our students.”
However, open lunch does have its drawbacks. A large amount of students eating outside of the school’s cafeteria means fewer students are buying MCPS’ lunches in the cafeteria, which decreases the need for many employees in the cafeteria.
Marla Caplon, director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services, said Montgomery Public Schools cafeteria staffing has decreased due to open lunch programs.
“About half of the high schools have open lunch and it’s a decision that is made at the school level,” Caplon said. “In a school like B-CC, where there is open lunch, and where less students participate in the meal program, staffers’ hours are reduced to reflect the business that it receives.”
Although decreased hours for staffers are a downside for MCPS lunch service, she said, the menus themselves have been transformed and students should look to school meals instead of eating out at times.
“We know our meals are lower in fat and sodium, and we provide fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Caplon said. “When students eat out all the time, nutrition can be a concern.”
But the importance of nutrition is based on an individual preference—not everyone wants healthy, she said.
“I hear both sides—some girls will say they’re really excited they can have a good salad for lunch,” Caplon said, “but then you’ll also hear that some students don’t want the healthy food.”
Maybe that’s why eating out is preferred among B-CC students—they get the best of both worlds.
“Nutrition doesn’t really matter to me,” Vincino says. “But I definitely didn’t go to McDonald's when it was there because that’s too unhealthy and I don’t find it appetizing.”
“That’s the great thing about open lunch—everyone can pick a new place to go to every day.”
But students who don’t have the option of open lunch may be fine with the choices in the cafeteria, one student said.
“Students at schools that don’t have open lunch probably don’t mind the cafeteria lunches because they haven’t experienced anything different,” Thorpe said. “In middle school we didn’t have open lunch so when I bought lunch I’d be like ‘Oh yum mozzarella sticks’. If they had open lunch I’m sure they would definitely take advantage of it. Open lunch is great.”
TELL US: What do you think? Do you think open lunch is a good or bad idea?