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The Plain Dealer

November 24, 2002



The air is heavy with the mingling scents of tacos and french fries. Things are fairly quiet: Co-workers chat while straightening items on loaded display cases.

All of a sudden, a bell rings.

"Uh-oh...," someone utters.

For a moment there is a vague sense of movement in the distance. A nearly imperceptible rumbling emerges. As the tremors grow, the sound and vibration, increasingly loud and strong, become unnerving - until you realize you're about to be engulfed in a stampede.

That's when you flatten against a wall and wait.

In a flash, the cafeteria at Midpark High School in Middleburg Heights is crawling with ravenous teenagers, and the cafeteria workers are scrambling.

"You want turkey, honey?" a line server is asking a gangly boy. With surprising speed, she and a partner are assembling big sandwiches on Nickles deli rolls. Bins of condiments, from tomatoes to jalapenos, are ready for students to customize their sandwiches.

Today it's sub sandwich day at Midpark High. It's also taco day. Workers in a third space dispense burgers, pizza, chicken sandwiches and fries.

In the world of hungry teens, life is good.

Good, if a bit disconcerting. Students over in the hot lunch line await their midday meal. Today that includes meat in a tortilla shell, optional toppings, large soft pretzels, a choice of milk and a dessert.

Wait a minute. Where are the green beans and tuna-noodle casserole, little bowls full of mandarin oranges and containers of whole milk?

Not today. For that matter, not anymore. The modern school lunch has become an amalgam, or perhaps a clash, of priorities: nutrition vs. fast-food tastes; market forces vs. government subsidies; traditional fare vs. new generation favorites.

And perhaps the most complicated forces of all, society's (or more specifically, parents') tendency to insist that offspring Do As We Say vs. Do As We Do.

As parents, we want school lunches that nourish. In an era where obesity among students has reached epidemic proportions, we also seek causes—and, maybe too often, convenient targets. What better than school lunches? After all, for generations they've been the source of endless jokes about inedible casseroles and "mystery meat."

In the beginning, the nation's school lunch program was simply intended to provide a wholesome midday meal to the nation's youth. Through decades of political pressure and legislative tweakings, coupled with cultural changes, parental demands, a meteor-shower of advertising—and, oh yes, children's changing tastes—the equation has significantly skewed.

In the end, at least for the kids, it apparently boils down to a punchline from a TV commercial for cereal featuring smug adolescents blowing off a clueless grownup:

"We eat what we like."

Cindy Moore, director of nutrition therapy for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says that any sound school food-service program should accomplish three things.

"School lunches should offer foods that taste good to the children being served; foods that support the growth and development of the children, meeting their nutritional needs; and foods that expose children to a variety of nutritious foods."

If food-service programs strive to increase students' familiarity with foods that are both healthful and tasty, Moore reasons, "children are going to be more likely to incorporate these foods into their diets."

Leslie Bonci, another spokeswoman for the association and a frequent guest on NBC's "Today" show, clearly supports the precepts underlying a federal school lunch program intended to provide low-cost and nutritionally sound meals to over 25 million children every school day.

"Sound food choices are important," Bonci says. "We have kids from all socio-economic and cultural strata coming in for lunch. Remember, there are a large number of kids for whom this is the decent meal of the day; for a lot of kids, this is two-thirds of their day's nutrients. Unfortunately, heaven only knows what's going to be waiting for them at the end of the school day."

Ellen Haas, former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary in charge of all public feeding services during the Clinton administration, achieved fame—some would say notoriety—by orchestrating the most dramatic nutritional revision of the nation's school lunches in a half-century. Haas was the first federal official to publicly recognize that school lunches were high in fat, saturated fat and sodium—and then actually force changes.

Haas' mission was to dramatically improve the nutritional profile of the so-called Type A (complete) lunches offered in more than 90,000 schools nationwide.

"Obesity is a function of low-income, too," Haas says. "I don't agree with the food-service position that 'you just need to get food into stomachs.' Ideally, a child will grow up, get out into the world and gain earning power, but the lifestyle factors set by age 12 will stay with them forever. If you're really trying to help poor people, you really try to make certain that they have access to a healthful diet."

But will they eat it?

One small problem, though. As school food-service directors and cafeteria managers quickly discovered, there can be a wide gulf between concocting meals that are nutritionally sound and meals that students will eat.

Bill Porter, principal at Wickliffe Middle School, recognizes the disparity.

"I think we know more now than ever before about nutrition, and I think more of that is filtering down to our kids in school," says Porter. "However, I also think there are more unhealthy options when kids are walking in grocery stores and fast-food places. They're armed with knowledge, but there's more food temptation than ever before."

Some of those temptations have crept into the schools. School officials explain their presence as a dollars-and-cents decision.

Most public school systems treat their food service departments as essentially independent businesses. School districts typically provide space and utilities, and then from there expect cafeterias to cover their own expenses.

"That's the ideal way. It should be self-supporting," says Jim Connell, superintendent of the Berea Board of Education. "It's not a program everyone takes part in; it's a service, based on what individuals consume—unlike a curricular program we offer to all students."

The downside, say school food-service directors, is that food-service programs struggle to stay alive economically.

"The pressure is on us to keep it healthier and with less fat, and serve a full meal—a main dish, two sides and milk—all for under two bucks," says Donna Copa, food-service director for South Amherst Middle School. "What we do on a day-to-day basis is a real challenge."

It's all about choices

Rebecca Adams, food service director for Mentor schools, juggles those mutually exclusive goals every day.

"The biggest challenge I face? Meeting the nutritional requirements and getting the kids to actually eat what you serve," Adams says. "There's a very fine line between nutrition and acceptability. I could put the very most nutritious lunch on the line, but if the child doesn't accept that, what have I accomplished?

"It's all about choices," Adams insists.

This year Mentor High School made a savvy move, certainly by marketing standards.

When the fall 2002 term began, the 2,400 students eligible for lunch in Ohio's largest three-year secondary school were greeted by a bold red-and-white neon sign welcoming them into the Cardinal Cafe, the rechristened school cafeteria.

"You've got to convince kids that it's cool to eat in school," Adams says. That's why the hot foods line is labeled "The Hot Zone." That's why bottled chai tea has been added to the beverage displays.

The classic lunch line was replaced by a "scatter system" approach. Much like shoppers at a food court, students were beckoned to sidle up to stations where they could choose from different options.

Free-standing displays labeled "Grab & Go" feature hot sandwiches and sides, or cold foods. The refrigerated cases are packed with a mixture of name brands like Minute Maid, Dairyman's and Gatorade mingling with prepackaged "wraps" and other sandwiches, salads and sides made in the adjoining school kitchen.

Pizza, both single-slice and small boxed varieties, is available daily; so are chicken sandwiches and burgers. At checkouts, free-standing carts are stacked high with still other brands: Kellogg's cereal bowls, bags of Doritos and Lay's, Little Debbie snacks. Fresh fruit is available at various stations.

Each day seven groups of students pour in, pay, eat and head back to class. Each group has little more than 20 minutes to accomplish that. Cafeteria workers have roughly 10 minutes between groups to refill displays.

Leslie Jankowski, cafeteria manager for Mentor High, sees plenty of advantages in the change.

"Children don't wait in the line like they used to," Jankowski says. "They used to spend 15 minutes of their 22-minute lunch period standing in line."

That's a crucial issue. One of the most common complaints among students and parents throughout the country is the tight turnaround kids face. Lunch periods of less than 30 minutes have become the norm; factor in transit time from classroom to cafeteria to the next class and students complain there's little time to linger in line, gobble and gulp. Many rely on vending machines or skip lunch altogether until they can grab something at a convenience store or fast-food spot after school.

As for Mentor High, students seem to be enamored with the new model. "I love 'express,' " says Rachel Nagy, a senior who lives in Mentor. "It moves a lot quicker."

"And there's a wide variety," adds Sara Grunden, a junior from Mentor. "Teenagers are quite picky about what they eat, and there are lots of choices here."

Sales figures seem to bear out that enthusiasm. Cafeteria revenue is up 20 percent since the school year began, Adams says, while vending machine sales are down 50 percent.

"Plate waste," food that ends up in the trash, is a clear sign of youthful disdain.

To counter plate waste, serving foods that students are used to is vital. Beth Spinks, food service director for Berea City Schools, says brand-recognition and peer-pressure must be considered.

"Students today have eaten out since they were babies, so they’re accustomed to seeing a McDonald’s-like spin on things," says Spinks.

"In order to attract kids, you have to emulate that in some ways. You choose the same kinds of products, put them in the same kinds of packages. If McDonald’s wraps theirs in foil, you choose to put yours in a foil-style wrapper. Those are the types of things you hear when you talk with students: The kids will tell you, ‘Why don’t you have this? Mickey D’s has it.’"

Haas says that having name brands in schools shouldn’t even be up for discussion.

"The a la carte part of menus is a local decision," Haas says, differentiating between the nutritionally sound Type A hot lunch and all the snack options. "As local school district representatives often told me, ‘We’re running a business.’ So there’s an argument to be made. Parents have to be bold. Tell the schools your children’s health comes first."

Food-service directors refuse to take the rap for what they consider a far broader social responsibility.

"Schoolchildren have been going out to the mall since they were this high," Adams’ hand swings down to a toddler’s size, "and they’ve been getting Happy Meals since they were old enough to sit up. It took McDonald’s 40 years to train this behavior, and it’s going to take us an awfully long time to reverse that. And the schools alone won’t change them."

Haas agrees that parental responsibility is key.

"They have to make it fun and enjoyable to eat healthful foods. Take children to tastings. Visit public markets, go to pick apples, visit farms. America has done effective things to curb smoking and all sorts of social marketing campaigns. We need to do more with food. Parents need to get more involved in schools."

For all her concern over the nutrient content of lunch, ADA spokeswoman Bonci says that as a parent she sees some of the concern about school lunches misplaced. The students for whom lunch is the only sound meal of the day are in the minority, she says.

"The issue of childhood obesity is complex," says Bonci. "It takes a community to share responsibility. It’s school, it’s home, religious venues, after-school activities. Pointing a finger is getting us nowhere."

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