Feb. 24, 2000
School lunches: fast food for thought?

Cafeterias face challenge of offering balanced diet and a balanced budget

Mystery meat may be a cafeteria menu item of the past, but local high school lunches these days are not exactly fresh and healthy California cuisine, either.

Last week, a statewide survey revealed that 71 percent of California high school districts serve fast foods including pizza, hamburgers, soda and french fries for student lunches and that those menu items - which are high in fat, salt and sugar and offer little nutrition - make up 70 percent of all school food sales.More than half of the 171 districts also reported carrying brand-name products from chains such as Taco Bell and Domino's Pizza.

Monterey County may grow a good portion of California's vegetables but local teens aren't eating any better than their peers around the state. Choices on local high school cafeteria menus include hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries. To be fair, not all the food is junky; the offerings at North Salinas High include homemade soups, salads, carrot sticks and luncheon meat or tuna sandwiches on whole wheat bread or bagels. But North Salinas' hungry pupils still go through about 20 large pepperoni pies from Mountain Mike's Pizza every day, and the cafeteria occasionally serves Taco Bell burritos enhanced to meet federal nutrition guidelines for school lunches.

High school food service managers say it's a choice between serving junk food and having students with picky palates go hungry.

"I know what they should be eating, but you can't make them eat right," says Kathy Dearing, food service manager for Salinas Union High School District and a registered dietician. "Eating habits come from home and you can't change them in a 20-minute lunch period. So we have to offer them choices that they will accept. And anything they can get at fast food, they'll buy here."

North Salinas High's cafeteria could dish out healthier options, "but they won't eat it, so why not offer them what they will eat?" says North Salinas High assistant principal August Caresani. "If our kids didn't like our food, they wouldn't eat it - they're high schoolers."

School food service managers say that while student nutrition is important, they must make school lunch programs financially self-sufficient. That means balancing the principle of healthy eating against the need to keep budgets solvent.

"This is a business," Caresani says. "Our goals is to contains costs and stay in the black."

So perennially unpopular items such as vegetables get replaced by unhealthy favorites such as pizza and french fries out of economic necessity.

Ironically, students from poorer families probably eat better at school than their wealthier peers. A la carte items such as pizza and fries do not qualify as appropriate menu items for the school lunches subsidized by the federal government. Lunches that qualify for the United States Department of Agriculture national school lunch program must include at least two ounces of protein, 3/4 cup of a fruit or vegetable, a serving of starch and milk. Cafeteria managers design the menus, which the USDA will audit every five years to ensure schools are meeting federal nutrition standards.

Depending on the income levels of their families, students can qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The government contributes about 20 cents toward the price of each fully-paid meal, $1.60 for a reduced price meal and $2 for a fully subsidized meal. While those amounts won't buy much off campus, North Salinas High students on Wednesday could get a hot dog with Tater Tots, shredded iceberg lettuce with pickles, carrot sticks and a cup of fruit cocktail all for the bargain price of $2.25.

The prices of a la carte foods were equally reasonable; a grilled chicken wrap in an herb tortilla plus soda cost $2.25, and a slice of pepperoni pizza went for less than $2.

Prices are kept low because the cafeteria only needs to make even, not make a profit. Cafeterias at local high schools have another business advantage: a captive audience. Virtually all public high schools in the county maintain closed campuses for lunch, although some allow seniors who meet grade and behavior standards to eat off campus. The federal money also helps schools meet the bottom line: Cafeterias at schools where few students qualify for subsidized meals "really struggle to break even," Dearing says.

The county's school lunch programs are quite substantial: for example, the budget for Monterey Peninsula Unified High School District's school lunch program, including federal subsidies, totaled about $3 million last year.

With that money, Dearing says, "we buy the best possible produce we can. We buy low-fat foods." But the money only goes so far. Salinas may be the salad bowl of the nation, but the district can't afford to buy lettuce more nutritious than iceberg.

Not that students are complaining about the vitamins they're missing in their meals. Those interviewed said they prefer the convenience and taste of the cafeteria food over homemade lunches.

"I like the pizza, the chili cheese fries and the Sprite sodas," said freshman Brandon Smith, 15. He rated the quality of the food "all right, but it ain't the best ... Some of the food is sick that they sell. Some food has hair in it. And it's too expensive; it shouldn't be $2 for chili cheese fries; maybe $1.50 or something."

Aresenio Lacam Bacal, 16, says he uses money from his job to buy his lunches because he doesn't have time to fix his own at home.

"Some of it's good, but some of it I don't like," said Eduardo Soria, 14, while munching on a chef's salad that included strips of ham and a hard-boiled egg on the inevitable bed of iceberg lettuce. On bad menu days, he said, he just buys pizza.

School systems hope to remove stigma of subsidized meals for students

Being poor is never easy, and negotiating the cafeteria line as a low-income student is no exception. Low-income students whose meals are wholly paid for or partly subsidized by the federal government must sometimes go through separate cafeteria lines or eat from a different menu than their classmates. These strictures sometimes embarrass students so much that they go hungry rather than appear poor to their peers.

While many school sin the Salinas Union High School District, including North Salinas High, still maintain separate cafeteria lines for subsidized meals, that system is gradually changing to follow the system being used at Monterey Peninsula Unified High School District.

All students in that district go through the main cafeteria line to get their food and then get in line to pay for their meals. But instead of handling greenbacks, cashiers swipe student's identification cards or scan bar codes for each student from a class list. A computer then automatically subtracts the value of the meal from the student's account, which can be paid by the parent, the student or federal government.

The new system may remove some of the stigma, but it doesn't remove the extra hardship of being poor in an area with an extraordinarily high cost of living. Because the government uses the same income scale for the entire nation to determine eligibility for subsidized lunches nationwide, a children from family that can barely afford housing here may not qualify for help paying for school lunches.

According to the federal scales, a family of four with two children having a gross income below $30,895 qualifies for reduced-price meals, and an income below $21,710 qualifies for free meals.

"If they lived in Georgia, they might be able to live on that kind of money. But those figures really should be adjusted to the cost of living," says Kathy Dearing, food service manager for Salinas Union High School District. She says housing costs in Monterey County bump such salaries squarely into the poverty range.

"I've had mothers just call and cry who went back to work and it just kicked their kids out of the free range. Suddenly they have to start to pay for meals for their kids and they're struggling, Dearing says. "So it's rough."

--Kathleen M. Wong