It is one more sign of the times. As school enrollements shrink and school budgets get tighter, school systems across the country are looking for ways to control costs. The same thing is happening in school lunch programs.

Nationally and locally, more school systems are moving away from traditional cafeterias. In schools where tiny enrollments make it harder to satisfy a fully staffed kitchen, the trend is toward satellite operations with meals prepared elsewhere. The change was brought charges that students are being served "TV dinners" and has raised fears that somehow children served by these operations are shortchanged.

At the same time, growing national concern about the American diet and the furor over organic food, cholesterol, carbohydrates and fibers have created increasing concern about the nutritional adequacy of school lunches.

This is the first of several articles on the school lunch programs in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.

This year the Montgomery County school system will serve an estimated 1.3 million preplated lunches in satellite school lunch operations. Preplated lunches will account for about 17 per cent of the approximately 8 million lunches to be served in county schools.

While foof service workers in other schools are ladling out meals from steam tables, children in 61 elementary schools will be picking up salads and bread and butter sandwiches in clear plastic plates and hot entrees on aluminum foil trays. Preplated lunches are prepared, for the most part, by county employees in nearby secondary schools.

Preplated lunches don't look like the school lunches that most parents knew and not all parents like them. "The school system has put its stamp of approval on a frozen TV dinner," said Rosa Lee Sanchez, of Back To Basic Foods, who is a critic of the program.

The reason for the change is not that school system officials decided preplated lunches were better - just cheaper. But the school system is adding refinements - making breads to be baked with frozen entrees to fill the air with an aroma that says, "Come to lunch."

The schools have always had satellite feeding operations for a handful of schools with no kitchen facilities. Kettles full of hot food went from one school to another to be served from steam tables.

In 1971, Montgomery County Schools began preplating, preparing food at one location in individual containers to be served or cooked at a satellite school.

"We went into preparing because we had about 40 schools with enrollments of 200 or less. It was just very uneconomical and inefficient to maintain a separate school lunch program in each of those schools," said food service division director Joanne Styer.

Even with preplating, costs have gone up. Since fiscal 1974, the total budget for school lunches, including funding from federal and local sources has increased from $7.7 million to about $10.5 million - about 36 per cent. Labor costs have increased by about 32 per cent even with reductions through attrition from 605 to 524 positions.

The preplated lunch program has shown savings, according to the food service division. According to a fiscal 1974 report, "The rate of production efficiency for the depot production center (the kitchen where preplated meals are prepared) was 15 meals per manhour of labor as compard to the other elementary schools' 10.7 meals per manhour."

This year, productivity in depot production centeres ranged from 17.5 to 22 meals per manhour (depending on what was being prepared). In other elementary schools it was up to 13.5, in part because smaller, less efficient, schools are now served out of depot centers, said Victoria Brown of food services.

The county provides about 7 per cent of the school lunches budget currently. About 67 cent of the budget is raised by lunch sale revenues. The remainder is provided by federal and state government.

Increasing the county share of the budget or raising the price of school lunches (55 cents in elementary schools and 60 cents in secndary schools) are ideas that are not politically attractive. "The lunch program just doesn't have that priority," said Styer, about an increased county share. "There have always been so many other things that were needed more."

In the school her children attended, "we used to have a lady who cooked," said board member Verna Fletcher. "I preferred that, but it is no economically possible anymore . . . We'd have to take it out of other programs," she said.

"I am concerned about satelliting. I don't think there's uniform quality," said school board member Daryl Shaw. On the other hand, he said, "We must find ways to make the (lunch program) self-supporting. We're under an obligation to provide some lunch and I don't think its right to take money out of other programs."

Styer cannot say what the eventual scope of the satellite operations will be for several reasons. If small schools are closed fewer schools might need the satellite service. If enrollment shrinks in other schools, more may be served through the satellite program.

Only elementary schools receive preplated meals. There are no plans to extend the program to larger secondary schools which can support traditional cafeteria operations.

What is happening in Montgomery County is happening elsewhere in Maryland and across the country. Statewide the number of satellite operations has increased by about a third according to figures supplied by Ruthetta Gilgash of the Maryland State Department of Education.

Frequently the impetus is economic, said Gilgash, "particularly in metropolitan areas where salaries are very high and labor scare." But she warned of trading labor costs for higher costs for prepared items.

"The satellite operations offer the capacity to have decent hot food brought in and there are economies of scale which would seem to me desirable," said Lewis Strauss of USDA's Food and Nutritious Service. "They can be good or ban, depending on the skill of the people involved," he said.

There are those, including a group called Back to Basic Foods, who are not comfortable with the program. Responding to such concerns the countywide associations of PTAs formed a committee to study the school lunch program. That committee, expected to get underway next school year, will probably "take over the function of Back to Basic Foods," said Sanchez.

"We are concerned about trends," said Sanchez. "The trend in the nation has been to go to convenience foods. The fact is, they are overprocesses, they contain additives and preservatives and other substances that may be injurious to health or are of unknown nutrititve value. The schools have picked up on that trend."

Sanchez said she would like to see schols use fresh foods, although she said she had no idea what the cost of purchasing and preparing out-of-season fresh produce would be.

"I'm only a housewife, not an expert, but I would think there is an alternative to Morton's and ITT," she said. Sanchez expressed what appears to be fairly frequent misconception - that satellite meals are frozen dinners purchased elsewhere. "Most of the lunches in the satellite operation are Morton's," she said.

In 1971, the school system used Campbells and Morton's entrees, although never entire meals, said Styer. Salads and other accompaniments were prepared by the shcools. Now the school system prepares most entrees as well. Only 17 per cent of the entrees used in the preplated lunches this year will be purchased.

One reason for continued use of purchased entrees has been limited facilities for preparing dishes in bulk and rapidly chilling them. With facilities being developed (the first kitchen specifically designed for satellite preparation at Sherwood High School is expected to open in the fall), frozen entrees are being phased out, said Styer.

Styer said the system has tried to monitor additives and preservatives in foods with an eye toward removing unnecessary ones. Knowledge of what the foods contain is "not 100 per cent" she said.

The system's main concerns have been sugar and fat content, Styer said. Only low-fat milk is served, and the system buys fruit in light, rather than heavy, syrup. As for other ingredients, the school system sometimes finds itself caught in the middle.

One day in March Styer received calls from two groups - one that objected to butter because of its cholesterol content, and another that objected to margarine because of food coloring.

Styer defends Montgomery County's satellite lunch operations as a reasonable answer to how to hold the line on costs while continuing to supply good-tasting, nutritious lunches.

"One baker can produce rolls for 2,000 students as easily as she can for 400. You can get more productivity, because she doesn't spend her time working on a line or cleaning up the kitchen." said Styer.

Styer also said she thought there were nutritional advantages. "I like the fact that the food is not standing for so long on a steam table."

Food services is still grappling with problems involved in preplating, a program that clearly doesn't please everyone.

Teachers and principals complained about the absence of the smell of baking bread when traditional cafeterias were eliminated. In response, the system began experiments baking banana nut bread, corn bread and other moist breads along with frozen entrees. By preparing its own preplated meals instead of buying frozen lunches, the system can respond to complaints and problems, Styer said.

"Sometimes our critics force us to look at ourselves. We may not always like what we see." she said.

School board member Roscoe Nix said that in the past few years, complaints about lunches have decreased. "I think that the real challenge for people who prepare foods in the future for school children is to make it not only nutritious but to make it appetizing and appealing."