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.
"Pizza could serve a dual purpose," says Priscilla Connors, assistant professor at the University of North Texas and consultant for the state's child nutrition programs. "It has a bread component, a meat or meat alternate component. Add a side and you have a meal." At DISD, french fries are the side dish for pizza.
This appears to contradict Barrett's assertion that school nutrition programs encourage educational progress. "Many students aren't coming to school ready to learn because of nutrition issues," he says. "We are as important to the educational day as any academic program." But school food-service directors insist that they comply with federal regulations. "We're trying to keep fat and carbs balanced," Scott says. "That's what we shoot for, even though you know students go for pizza and nachos." She proudly points out that two-thirds of the kids at Polk Middle School select the main lunch line--serving chicken-fried steak on a recent visit.
Yep, a few bites of pizza or chicken-fried steak and check out the big brain on Brad.
"The problem with complying with federal standards is their choice of entrées," Connors points out. "A pizza can be high in fat. A chicken-fried steak is going to provide up to 50 percent of its calories from fat."
"We have to have approved recipes and a production record that verifies the recipe and that items were purchased in the correct amounts for that recipe," Barrett rejoins. "We are audited and reviewed, and a government team visits schools at random." As long as the entire set of menu items each day falls within prescribed requirements, the cafeteria upholds federal standards. Food-service directors can't help it if students prefer nachos to green beans. "We try to give them a choice, and they can make wise decisions," Scott adds without even a hint of irony. "But a lot of that has to come from home."
The most insidious form of competition comes from the schools themselves. At Molina High School in Dallas, Newman Smith High School in Carrollton and many other schools around the Dallas area, rows of vending machines stand just outside the cafeteria--visible, and within easy reach, but cynically sidestepping federal regulations that require schools to shut down soda and candy machines located in the cafeteria during meal periods. Food-service departments do not control vending machines. Indeed, school lunch programs operating under federal regulations are not allowed to sell carbonated beverages and certain snack items. Instead, school boards or principals agree to vending machines as a way to fund extracurricular activities, clubs, computer centers or other programs. Some schools earn $50,000 or more a year from vending machine commissions.
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"Vending machines are a pretty hot issue," Connors says. "It's unfortunate that a child is considered a revenue source. That's really where the controversy comes from--who can compete for the child's food dollar." Currently several states, including Texas, are considering legislation to limit vending machine access.
To students, however, vending machines, nutrition, cost and other issues are just background noise. The real concern is time: Local schools limit students to a 30-minute lunch period. In that time they must study the menus in each service area, select a line, pick their sides, enter their code (or slide their card) into the register, find a table and eat. "They have everything," says Molina junior Priscilla Salazar, "but there are too many people." When the lunch bell rings, 500 or more kids pile into cafeterias at one time. "The lines are too long," agrees sophomore Maggie Hernandez. "You spend 15 minutes in line and you don't have enough time to eat."
Under those conditions, the quality of the food doesn't really matter. When chicken-fried steaks sit too long under heat, the plastic utensils--schools use plastic knives nowadays, forcing students to arm themselves at home--break against the tough outer shell. Sometimes the fries are cold and the cafeteria doesn't always offer a particular student's favorite. But that's always been the case. Otherwise, explains senior Carlos Ramirez, "The food is better than you'd expect."
Food-service directors know their role, and they understand that accolades may never come their way. "It's a complicated business," Scott acknowledges. You've got to keep financially balanced and still please everyone. It's like walking a tightrope."