With her 15-year-old stomach rumbling, Sara Arbieto hurried into the Mexican line of the "International Food Court" inside her T.C. Williams High School cafeteria and grabbed a plate of tacos buried in beef, beans and cheese.
"Not exactly as good as my mom makes," said Sara, who is from Peru. "But I don't like too much pizza. This is a little bit like Peruvian food."
Without leaving the cafeteria, Sara has plunged her plastic utensil into everything from Indian-style chicken curry to Jamaican jerk pork and fried plantains this school year. So much for the idea that a school lunch means soggy Tater Tots and a rubbery hamburger.
In Alexandria and other school districts with large immigrant populations, the lunchroom menu is slowly changing to suit the taste buds of students from around the world, the latest example of how new Americans are influencing life inside public schools.
Fairfax County students have dined on beef teriyaki and African-style rice and stews. In Prince George's County, students can sample Spanish-style beans and rice and Middle Eastern yogurt sauces. Even schools with a relatively small influx of immigrants, such as those in Loudoun County and Southern Maryland, have introduced "Latin American Food Day" within the last two years.
"It's happening all across the country in schools that are becoming more diversified and are trying to serve their customers," said Patti Montague, director of member services and marketing for the American School Food Services Association. "In Texas, in California, you also see schools serving Asian and Latin-style dishes."
Food service directors say the expansion of choices is necessary to lure young customers, especially at high schools that allow students to go off campus for lunch, as T.C. Williams does.
At the Alexandria high school, which has 2,000 students, the number of students eating a cafeteria lunch has increased from 400 to 500 a day since the international food court made its debut in September 1998. The school's students come from more than 78 countries and speak more than 52 languages.
"It's a real challenge to keep kids on campus," said Ralph Schobitz, food service director of Alexandria schools. "We wanted to create something that would allow students to say, 'This is from my country.' "
The food court has Mexican and Italian food every day and a rotating menu of American and Asian dishes, including Polynesian sweet-and-sour turkey ham and Japanese vegetables. The taco counter was even designed to look like a Mexican restaurant, with walls painted bright purple and a drawing of a huge chili pepper wearing sunglasses.
Inside the cafeteria on a recent day, the line included students from Pakistan, El Salvador, the Philippines and Sierra Leone. Some said the ethnic food is sometimes a flimsy, watered-down nod to their culture. There was the Greek theme day, for example, when steak sandwiches were served instead of the more authentic gyros.
Still, most students said they appreciated the school's effort to accommodate them, as well as the chance to sample cuisine from another culture.
At a table filled with students from Somalia, Nigeria, Mexico and the Middle East, Nesrin Alkhalil, 18, from Lebanon, sat looking at a plate of tacos.
"I've never had this before," she said, as friends poked her and told her to try it. "When I first came here, I wouldn't try anything except what I was used to in Lebanon. I never even tried peanut butter and jelly."
She wrinkled her nose and finally gave in to the peer pressure. "Not bad," she said of the taco. "It's not hummus, but it's okay."
Ifrah Elmi, 18, from Somalia, agreed with several of her table mates that they had recently tried cafeteria dishes they had never heard of before. "I like the food," Elmi said. "To me, it's interesting. There's more than hot dogs and cheeseburgers."
Peggy McConnell, director of food and nutrition services in the Fairfax school system, not only serves food from around the world but prints applications for school lunches in six languages, including Cambodian and Farsi, so that parents who don't speak English can make sure their children are signed up for the school lunch program.
"The students also get to learn about the country the food is from, and we go into the classrooms and talk about it," McConnell said. "We want everyone to feel that we are including their cultures, and food is a great way."
Schobitz, who grew up on hearty German-style dishes such as potato dumplings and red cabbage and roast pork, said he understands the needs of newly arrived immigrants.
"We have such a wide range of people, it's hard to please everyone. But we want to try and touch some of the students," said Schobitz, who received the national Silver Rising Star award from the American School Food Services Association last month for his innovative efforts.
His focus on serving ethnic food extends to Alexandria's elementary schools, where each month there is a different food theme. This month the theme is China, and students are being served egg rolls, fried rice and fortune cookies along with American choices.
To make sure that the recipes for the food court at T.C. Williams were reasonably authentic, he consulted with an Indian custodial worker when making the curry chicken and got advice on jerk pork from a staff member who has a husband from Jamaica. But Schobitz toned down the curry a few notches, afraid that some non-Indian students would find the taste too spicy.
Despite his efforts, some T.C. Williams students cannot be wooed. Standing outside the cafeteria last week, some rolled their eyes and laughed at even the thought of eating a school lunch.
"I don't know," said Mari Chris, 15, who is from the Philippines and likes to eat Chinese food and bagels off-campus during lunch hour.
When a friend told her that the cafeteria sometimes serves Asian-style foods, she smiled and said she would think about trying it.
It's news that would send Schobitz to the staff searching for recipes from the Philippines.
CAPTION: At T.C. Williams, Mohamed Alie prepares a taco for Amile Mouktamil, who is from Morocco.