A Slice of Pizza Face

School lunch competes for student tastes, government dollars

The cafeteria at Molina High School in Dallas offers a Tex-Mex line, a pizza line, a basket lunch line serving such zoological anomalies as steak fingers, something called the country kitchen line and a vegetarian menu. At R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton, a bakery rolls out homemade pretzels, kolaches and cookies. Bright neon signs attract students to the various serving lines, and the kitchen staff wear monogrammed polo shirts.

It's a far cry from the days when school lunch periods resembled chow call at Stalag 17--a single slow line, staffed by octogenarian drill instructors whose black hairnets only vaguely obscured hideous facial scars, serving mystery-meat casserole or other nauseating glop. Back in the late 1970s, students in one school routinely bet on the time required for a batch of cafeteria fries to soak through a paper bag. At various times school lunch served as the basis for national defense (the program began in 1946 in response to the ill health of military inductees during World War II), the object of political machinations (the Reagan administration once declared ketchup a vegetable) and the butt of jokes.

School cafeterias today serve Red Baron pizza, Tyson chicken and Dole bananas. They conduct taste tests of new menu items, survey student interests and even employ mystery shoppers. "We offer four entrées plus a choice of three sides and whole milk or 1 percent milk," says Sylvia Scott, director of student nutrition for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District. "We have a grill line, a pizza line, a café line--it's a mall concept with individual kiosks, a bakery, nachos, subs, fresh fruit and salads. It's just like going to Luby's."

Perhaps, but it's still school lunch--a massive federally assisted meal program operating in more than 97,700 schools and child-care institutions, dolloping out more than 27 million meals every school day. The Dallas Independent School District alone operates 212 kitchens. "That's larger than most franchises," Dennis Barrett, executive manager of Food and Child Nutrition Services for the district, points out.

Unlike a restaurant franchise, however, school cafeterias must adhere to government standards, fit food service into tight 30-minute lunch schedules and suffer blame and charges of wrongdoing from all sides. For instance, a recent report from the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine faulted the school lunch program for childhood obesity. Almost 5 million school-age kids are overweight, so it's a matter of some concern. But many of these attacks come from partisan sources. The doctors complained that only 8 percent of elementary schools surveyed provide low-fat, cholesterol-free plant protein. And a strongly worded story by Tribune News Service writer Jacquelyn Mitchard ranked school food service right up there with al Queda, charging that "the school cafeteria is a weapon that will strike children in the heart decades from now."

More balanced research suggests, however, that lack of exercise may be culpable as well. Only 29 percent of American students participated in daily physical education periods in 1999, down from 42 percent at the beginning of that decade.

School lunches follow the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of a student's calories come from fat. Cafeterias must offer five items in each "meal pattern:" a serving of meat or meat alternative, bread, milk and two servings of vegetables and/or fruit. The program also requires that lunches provide one-third of the recommended daily allowances of vitamin A, vitamin C, protein, iron and calcium.

Also unlike Luby's, school food-service operations participating in the National School Lunch Program--it's voluntary--must operate on a nonprofit basis. And current fiscal realities demand that food-service divisions pay their own way, without drawing on general funds. High school students in Carrollton-Farmers Branch pay $2.25 to $2.50 for lunch. The district operates an open campus plan, allowing certain students to rush out for a fast-food meal. This drives up the break-even cost for food service. "It's a business, and it has to be run as a business because we have to compete with 7-Elevens and such," Scott explains. Still, half of the district's students choose cafeteria meals, and the kitchens serve 13,900 lunches a day. DISD runs a closed campus but charges only $1 for meals. "We're responsible to pay our own way," Barrett says. "We have to run it like a business and make decisions on what we can and cannot do."

The true art of school lunch, then, exists not in the kitchen, but in the administrative offices. It costs DISD $2.30 to prepare each meal. The federal government reimburses $2.09 for each free meal, $1.69 for reduced-price meals and a mere 20 cents for paid meals. "We must put 60 to 70 cents of food on each plate, not more," Barrett explains. "Beyond that, we can't break even." DISD's Food and Child Nutrition Services Department employs almost 2,000 people. Payroll accounts for 46 percent of its annual budget, with spending on food and supplies totaling 29 percent. They operate a warehouse offering 92,000 square feet of storage and freezer space and serve $17 million worth of food each year, 70 cents at a time. À la carte sales make up any shortfall.

"We can't survive without à la carte sales," Barrett acknowledges.

At the same time, however, the constant pressure to achieve self-sufficiency forces food directors to wage a three-way tug-of-war between budgetary demands, government regulations and teen-age tastes. Hence the nachos, pizza, burgers and other popular menu items. A 1995 survey of cafeteria managers nationwide found that 42 percent of cooked vegetables ended up in the garbage. Waste costs money, and students rarely toss out pizza and french fries.

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