"OH, YEAH! Lunch is much better here than what we got in elementary school," says Johnette Brock, an eighth-grade student at the District's Shaw Junior High School. "They serve more foods here that children like--french fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, even salisbury steak. My favorite is chicken--baked or fried--because they cook it here" she stresses, with a gleam in her eye.
"Yeah," agrees ninth grader Sharon Lesane. Her favorite lunches come from the school's twice-weekly salad bar. When in elementary school, she brought her lunch from home because the commercially prepared, pre-cooked, foil-wrapped lunches served in 63 of the District's public schools "tasted like TV dinners. Here they make cakes and ice cream, and the rolls don't feel hard."
These improved menus represent a growing nationwide movement away from frozen lunch platters, and a return toward making foods fresh in school cafeterias. Shaw is one of the 123 schools in the District where food is prepared fresh on the premises.
School lunch programs have changed drastically since the 1981-82 school year began, says Lynn Parker, Staff Nutritionist for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Student participation declined at a far more rapid rate than ever before as a result of a $1 billion reduction in the National School Lunch Program that year. The deficit meant increasing prices to students at the nation's 104,000 public schools. Three million fewer students participated in the program. As a result, food service personnel across the country put their heads together to come up with new ways to get students back into the system.
Since then, the meals of frozen lasagna have gone the way of ketchup-as-a-vegetable. School lunch has become a buyers market. Food service personnel across the country are offering students expanded menus with new products as they are introduced to the school lunch program, says Betty Bender, president-elect of the American School Food Service Association.
"Suddenly we've realized we're competing in the outside world," says Bender. "We've realized these same fast foods which children prefer are available to us and we should utilize them in our kitchens. It's to our advantage, from a health standpoint and an accountability standpoint, to get children to eat lunch," she says.
Four years ago Bender, in her Dayton, Ohio, school district, started the trend with the first school lunch pasta bar offering spaghetti or linguine with meat sauce, meat balls or mushroom sauce. While the traditional hot lunch plate is still offered, Dayton lunches this year will also include choices like tacos and burritos, pizzas, hamburgers or even a fantasia of fresh fruit and cheeses that students put together themselves.
Food service directors need to "get into creative menu planning," says Parker. FRAC's publication, "Doing More With Less," is a hot new reference guide consulted around the country for ways to save money through bulk buying, increasing the use of USDA commodities, making better use of labor and integrating computers into the school lunch programs.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides technical assistance to school districts around the country that are interested in using computers in their lunch programs. The programs have the ability to cost-out meals, analyze nutrient content, control inventory and maintain records required by the the National Schoool Lunch Program, says Catherine Jensen, Director of Information at USDA. "Computers exist in many school districts," she says, "so it is a matter of getting them to plug in."
Other nationwide responses to the school lunch crisis:
* Last May P.S. 229 in Queens, N.Y., sent home menus for parental perusal. Student participation jumped from 400 to 700 students daily.
* New Castle, Ind., public elementary schools serve meals family-style. Large bowls of vegetables, meat and fruit are served daily. "It's a lot of fun for the kids and cuts back on plate waste," says Aleen Owens, county director of school food and nutrition.
* Students in Santa Cruz, Calif., may opt for tofu as a menu alternative in the form of dips, pizza, quiche, tacos and lasagna. Served with legumes or cheese, tofu meets the USDA protein requirements under the National School Lunch Program, says Thelma Dalman, director of food services there.
* And in Shelburne, Vt., last year, an eighth grade student at Shelburne Middle School put the school's lunch inventory onto a computer program, allowing more for more accurate accounting of supplies, budgets and record keeping.
Locally, the lunch scene is changing, too.
This year Montgomery County's public school students will for the first time be fed from a 22,000 foot computer-operated warehouse that allows bulk buying as a means to save money, says Joanne Styer, director of the county's food service program. While the warehouse cost $1.4 million to build and will have an estimated budget of $15 million per year to stock and operate, projected savings are around 20 percent, she says.
"In many cases we'll be able to eliminate the middleman." Produce and eggs will come from wholesalers in Pennsylvania, she says. The additional storage space will allow the county to better utilize commodities from the federal Food Distribution Program, which provides about 20 percent of the county's food. "We get large volumes without advance notice," Styer says. Storing the government's 1,000 cases of sliced peaches, two railroad cars full of frozen french fries and a truckload of turkeys was no problem at the beginning of this school year, she says.
Students will be served from deli bars, where sandwiches are made to order; taco salads of nacho chips, ground beef, cheese and lettuce will be served alongside quarter-pounders and salad bars complete with grains, cottage cheese, tomatoes, toppings and dressings.
The warehouse's $38,000 computer controls the inventory for the maintenance staff of 10, Styer says. It tells them when to order, places orders, pays vendors, tells them where to store the groceries. When it's time to deliver to the schools from their five refrigerated 20-foot flatbed trucks, the computer tells them where to find the items in the warehouse and the most efficient ways to load the trucks.
A new 13,000-square-foot warehouse in Fairfax County is expected to open this January, says Dorothy Pannell, the county's director of food service. It is expected to save the county seven percent of its budget through bulk buying and commodities storage. Two years ago this county was the first in the area to offer students salad bars. Milkshakes are a new a la carte item on the menu this year. In addition, the schools hold taste tests to determine student reactions to new products coming on the market.
In the District, the push is on to get students eating freshly prepared hot meals, says food service director Julius Jacobs. Here, schools equipped with cafeterias on the premisis will cook, not only for their own schools, but will also make up the lunches from raw ingredients to truck to the remaining schools in the city.
"This year we've jazzed up the menus to make them more appealing , taking raw ingredients and putting them together fresh," says Jacobs. The aim is to get away from the pre-packaged lunches that students like Johnette Brock and Sharon Lesane disdain, as well as to give them foods that they like, are nutritionally balanced and are served in a comfortable atmosphere.
Special programs include "family day", when parents and students eat lunch together and the boys in the school band act as ushers. During Black History Month, one menu is entirely of African cuisine, and students are served Swahili chicken, foo foo (mashed white and sweet potatoes), date bread and soup.
Despite the fact that there is a policeman at Shaw's checkout line, there is a special effort to make the cafeteria a more enjoyable eating experience for students. It is a "closed campus" and students must stay on the grounds during lunch breaks, Jacobs says. The cafeteria is painted light green and student art borders the ceiling.
A corner of the cafeteria has been sectioned off with a reservations-only dining area with wallpaper, curtains, a wrought-iron fence and a silver disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Food service foreman Delores Weems says it "gives students a chance to learn about dining out." She takes reservations in advance and students are given a special badge which allows them to walk to the front of the line to get their lunch. And anyone who remembers the pushing and shoving that goes on in every school lunch line, will have to agree that makes for a pretty nice lunch hour.