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A Report Card on School Lunches : On paper most school lunches look the same; on the plate they don't


When canned purple plums recently appeared on the government's surplus commodities list, most school district food service managers weren't pleased. School-age children don't like canned purple plums.

In Compton the plums were chilled, scooped straight from the can onto serving trays and set before the student body.

The children promptly threw them away.

Things were different in Stockton. There the plums were mixed with apples, cherries and spices, then sprinkled with a crunchy topping. Students loved it.

Conejo Valley Unified School District in Thousand Oaks developed a recipe for Plum Nutty Fruit Cake. It was a hit too.

"If the kids knew (purple plums) were in the cake they wouldn't eat it," says Ruth Roberts, director of child nutrition services at Conejo. She says there are lots of commodities that children don't like--sweet potatoes and frozen green peas, for example.

Directors, Roberts says, have to "come up with some clever but nutritious ways of using them." Her staff puts peas through a food processor and adds them to Ranch Dressing--it's called "green goddess." Mashed sweet potatoes go into tomato-based recipes, such as spaghetti or pizza sauce, to give the food added nutrition. Her staff even developed a recipe for a chocolate cake with pureed surplus green beans; the children loved it. "It's totally hidden," Roberts says.

Every day more than 2 million school lunches are served in California. On paper most of them look the same. According to the federal Minimum Meal Pattern Requirements (formerly known as the Type A lunch), defined under the 1946 National School Lunch Act, meals must contain two ounces of meat or a meat alternate, a cup of vegetables and fruit, eight servings per week of ead or a bread alternate and eight ounces of milk daily. Schools that meet these standards and participate in the National School Lunch Program receive federal assistance--cash subsidies and donated commodities from USDA.

But things have changed since 1946. Gone are the days when little old ladies in hair nets labored over hot stoves in school kitchens. The kitchens themselves have changed; they've turned into "food preparation areas." And, of course, lunch has changed.

Some of today's standard menus are pizza, salad, fruit and an ice cream bar; a corn dog, fries or Tater Tots, apple wedges and trail mix; taco, fiesta rice, vegetable sticks and dip, a cookie; spaghetti, garlic bread, salad, gelatin; hamburger, potato rounds and a fruit cup; turkey and gravy, whipped or mashed potatoes, fresh fruit and roll. Cooking these lunches is an awesome task complicated by competition from fast-food restaurants, peer pressure, variations in ethnic eating habits and restrictive food services budgets.

There are still a handful of schools in California with on-site kitchens, but most of this food is trucked in from a central kitchen where it has been squirted, dropped, pressed and sealed into pre-plated hot or cold packages. At the school, corn dogs, pizzas, burritos, chalupas (little taco boats) and other hot items are simply baked in convection ovens before serving. The cold component (fresh fruit, salad, gelatin), is kept refrigerated until serving time. Or, the trucks deliver food in ready-to-serve bulk trays prepared in a central kitchen. At the school a cafeteria worker, frequently assisted by upper grade students, simply scoops, slices and serves.

The question is--does anybody actually eat this food? It's an important question. Funds are allocated to food service departments according to the number of students who eat in the cafeterias; a drop in participation can make a big difference. "Food service departments," says Marilyn Wells, director of food services in the Alhambra Unified School District, "are forced to operate as a business, similar to McDonald's." To improve her business, Wells added grilled hamburgers and cola to her district's menu in 1984; participation increased from 27% to 34%. "Our goal," she says, "is to get in as many students as possible."

That is every food director's goal.

With this in mind, The Times spoke with directors throughout the state about their school lunch programs. The differences were astonishing. Based on interviews with nutrition experts and food service directors, we chose some of the most representative districts in the state. Some food service directors show exceptional creativity in enticing students into the cafeteria, especially given the problems of working within the restrictions of the government feeding program. Others, faced with some particularly difficult circumstance, such as size of the district, manage to personalize their programs and make food that is appealing to children. Still, some school food services directors admit that what they are serving is "like airplane food," and others feel that standardization must be their major goal.


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