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Originally published September 25, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified September 7, 2012 at 10:48 AM

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School lunch has so many issues to chew on, it's tough to change

People often don't understand the complexities of school lunches. So the Seattle Times took a look around and did some homework on Seattle's program. What we learned is that lunch ladies aren't just grabbing whatever slop they have on hand and throwing it on the steam table. Quite the opposite. School lunch is arguably the most regulated, thought-about, fought-over and highly planned meal in America.

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School lunch. The Rodney Dangerfield of meals.

From reality television to the first lady herself, we've heard the cries about all that processed stuff substituting for fresh, about the scourge of government commodities — and about kids who are increasingly overweight.

"It's that kind of food that's killing America," TV chef Jamie Oliver practically wept on his "Food Revolution" reality show, with its niggling bureaucrats, clueless parents and cranky lunch ladies.

A cynic might conclude that lunch ladies are actually conspiring to make our kids fat.

It's enough to get your hairnet all in a bunch.

But is it true? Or fair?

"I think there's a lot of bashing of school-lunch programs by people who don't spend the time to understand all the complexities," says Wendy Weyer, assistant director of nutrition services at Seattle Public Schools.

That's where we come in.

We took a look around, did some homework.

And what we learned is that those lunch ladies aren't just grabbing whatever slop they have on hand and throwing it on the steam table. Quite the opposite.

Yummy or yucky, processed or plain, school lunch is arguably the most regulated, thought-about, fought-over and highly planned meal in America.

And yet . . . Somehow, it still gets no respect.

Could it be better? Probably. But before you sign on to the cheerleading squad for insta-reform, there's a lot you should know.

FIRST, A PRIMER.

As with so many things, you've got to follow the money — what little of it there is.

For most school districts, lunch is a money-losing proposition. Not that they're trying to make a profit, anyway. It's viewed as part of the educational mission. After all, a hungry kid can't concentrate on his spelling.

All told, a little more than half of Washington kids get the school lunch.

The federal government underwrites a great deal of what's on their trays. Those dreaded commodities? They're essentially farm surplus that the feds buy and then offer up to schools. It might be corn dogs or chicken fried steak, but there's also cheese and cherries and flour.

But commodities are only part of the picture. The biggest federal subsidy is tied to feeding low-income kids. For every lunch served to a kid who qualifies for free meals, a school district gets $2.72. (It's a whopping 2 cents more in particularly impoverished areas.) Some other students qualify for reduced-price meals, and the feds help pay for them, too. They also kick in a little bit for kids who can pay their own way.

For most school districts, this still makes for some dispiriting arithmetic: They have about $3 to spend per lunch. About $2 of that goes to labor and overhead, leaving just about a buck to cover the cost of the actual food.

Not much, huh? Congress has been considering legislation that would increase the federal subsidies. In the meantime, think about the alternatives:

Should schools increase their lunch budget — which could force cuts to other programs? How about jacking up the prices, so well-off families subsidize the low-income kids? You wouldn't want to suggest the less-affluent kids should get less, would you?

Now, before you vote, remember you have to play by a lot of rules. (And in case you think that's easy, please know that I've deciphered everything from Supreme Court rulings to state foster-care regulations, and this stuff was just as complicated.)

While districts set their own menus, they've got to meet minimums set by the USDA for protein, iron, calcium and Vitamins A and C. They've also got to keep the fat calories under 30 percent.

They've got to make food that kids want to put on their trays, or risk losing funding. (Remember, the feds only give meal subsidies for kids who actually take the meals. Commodity allotments are based on the number of lunch-eaters, too.)

And they've got to create meals that can easily be consumed, by little hands, in less than 20 minutes. Often with a spork.

Weyer sighs. "Welcome to my world."

For the next few dozen column-inches, dear reader, that's exactly where we'll take you.

The critics: Get rid of the processed entrees and replace them with homemade!

Great idea. Who wouldn't prefer fresh roasted chicken over some prefab chicken product with unpronounceable ingredients?

Kids, it turns out. The Auburn School District, for instance, has won praise across the state for adding fresh, homemade entrees, like roast pork and lasagna, to its offerings.

But compared to pizza and corn dogs, homemade entrees get far fewer takers, says Eric Boutin, who was the district's highly praised director of child nutrition services. (He recently took a similar position in Seattle.)

The most popular item on Auburn's menu?

Boutin doesn't hesitate: "Chicken nuggets."

"It's a little disheartening," he adds.

The same thing happened when Auburn high schools began roasting potatoes as an option to French fries. The fry wins the battle of the spud.

Maybe schools should just tell the kids tough luck: no more nuggets or fries. It's roasted chicken or nothing. But this, too, is problematic.

For one thing, lots of kids qualify for free lunch. Some say schools have an obligation to get those kids to eat something, even if imperfect.

In addition, in order to qualify for federal reimbursement, youngsters have to take a certain number of items (generally three) from the lunch line.

Critics say this leads to overeating; on the other hand, the feds don't want to fork over $2.72 for, say, a juice.

Still, it creates a dilemma for schools. If hordes of kids brown-bag it on roasted-chicken day, then the school's subsidies are reduced.

Meanwhile, it takes a lot more work to roast fresh chicken than heat up precooked nuggets. "So I have less revenue and hugely inflated labor costs," Boutin says.

Weyer says it would break the bank if they kept putting out food that kids chose not to eat. Think how hard it is to please your family of four; now multiply that by thousands.

"Can we get to a system where school lunch looks like what our parents had as far as their traditional Sunday dinners, the meat and potato and vegetable?" she asks.

She doesn't answer.

The critics: Serve more fresh fruits and vegetables!

Another great idea. Who doesn't think everyone should eat more of them?

In Washington, many school districts already have salad bars with an array of fresh produce. On a visit to Van Asselt Elementary, in Seattle, it included lettuce, carrot sticks, cauliflower florets and grapes, along with applesauce.

So, how does it go over?

"I just don't like vegetables for some reason," says Pearl Ruan, who last year was a fifth-grader at Van Asselt. Looking around the cafeteria, it was apparent most other kids felt the same.

"Kids — even adults — don't always do what they know is best for them," Boutin explains.

In Auburn, he always offered fresh produce — everything from asparagus to radishes — because some kids do like it, and, besides, kids will deign to try something once it becomes familiar.

Still, he says, "If you put out a really gorgeous salad bar, and nobody takes it, I feel like the cooks have done what they can do. We need parents and the school building to help us reach kids."

Fresh also has its costs. Buy giant cans of, say, peaches, and you know exactly how many servings you'll get. Buy fresh peaches, and you're bound to get some unservable ones. That might work at home, because Dad can run out to the store. It might work in a restaurant, because, well, diners can order something else. But in a school? You can't just tell little Johnny you're fresh out.

The critics: You're making kids fat!

The fact is, one in three kids is overweight or obese, according to one widely quoted study.

Is it school food? Or is it the mondo-muffins at the school bake sale? The after-school Cheetos and Coke? The fast-food dinners? Sitting around playing video games?

We're not prepared to figure that out.

One thing we do know is that the USDA requires schools to offer youngsters a minimum of somewhere between 633 and 825 calories per lunch. (The exact amount depends on grade level and other factors way too complicated to describe here.)

Note the word "offer."

"If they take a full serving of everything, that would provide the (required) calories," says Weyer at Seattle schools.

How many calories should schools offer? The Institute of Medicine last year recommended a 650-calorie maximum for students in grades K-5, 700 for grades 6 to 8, and 850 for 9-12. That's not much different from the USDA numbers — except that its are required, and they're minimums.

Last year, in a state review, Seattle had trouble meeting them. In a previous round of state reviews, more districts came up short than exceeded the target.

Some expect the USDA calorie minimums will be lowered in the next year. However, in the meantime, it creates a dilemma for lunch ladies. Take vegetables, which everyone (except kids, apparently) is clamoring for. They're chock full of vitamins. They're also very low in calories.

"I'd love to be able to provide a choice of entrees and a nice fruit and vegetable bar," Weyer says. "Believe me, I've tried. Fruits and vegetables do not equate to hundreds of calories. So that's where our problem lies."

She worries that the calorie minimums for the youngest kids may be a bit too high right now. Still, she wonders, "How much different is the food we're offering to kids than what they're having at home?"

"When you have pizza at school, they're only giving you one piece," Boutin points out. At home, you might have two, or three, or more. "I don't think kids are getting obese from the school lunch," he says.

And seriously: Do you know how many calories — or, for that matter, how much iron or fat or Vitamin A — is in your kid's brown bag?

The critics: Get rid of the commodities!

Commodity foods are dismissed by moms everywhere as leftover, low-quality food from the federal government. Not only that, they're also seen as helping to prop up Big Agribusiness, which is profiting from the fattening of America.

That is part of the story. But consider this: Seattle is eligible for about $790,000 in commodity foods this year.

"That's money that's hard to leave on the table," Weyer says.

It's worth noting the program works differently than some may assume. Based on how many lunches they serve, schools get something like a commodity bank account. Then they get a list of available commodity products, which they can "buy" using their bank account.

A number of items on the list would give Jamie Oliver conniptions. Chicken fried steak. Cherry chocolate muffins.

But other items on the list are perfectly reasonable. The applesauce on Van Asselt's salad bar? Commodity. Those boxes of raisins? Commodity. Those dried cherries last year? Commodity (and Washington-grown, at that).

"The cherry industry had a surplus, and the government bought that surplus," Weyer says. "Does that make that food bad?

Some commodity items are sent by the schools to processors, who add other ingredients and turn them into something, well . . . processed. Ground beef becomes Beef Teriyaki Dippers. Giant blocks of cheese become Mozzarella Cheese Breadsticks.

Aside from kids, few cheer this practice. But without it, we're back to the question of what, exactly, will thousands of kids agree to eat? With a spork?

"We could get 30-pound blocks of mozzarella and grate it ourselves," Weyer says. "Then what do you make it into?

"If not cheese breadsticks, then what?"

The critics: You've got to be kidding? You're saying that you can't change anything?

No, that's not what they're saying.

In fact, many schools have been making changes.

The Olympia School District contracted with a local bakery to make its pizzas more nutritious. Seattle was just awarded a grant to develop some "whole food" recipes. Auburn has incorporated more fresh local produce (see related story on page A1).

Some districts have switched to ground beef with a lower fat content or trans-fat-free margarine. Many have substituted whole-wheat bread for white (even though that can lead to what Boutin calls "acceptability issues," i.e., a giant "yuck" from the masses).

These changes may be invisible to parents, yet they cost thousands.

Some changes are bigger. Faced with a $20,000 shortfall in its meal program two years ago, the San Juan Island School District considered eliminating hot lunches.

Instead of resorting to serving just PB&J ("Plan C," as then-superintendent Walt Wegener called it), they enlisted the help of a local chef, Tom French. French revamped the district's menu, substituting homemade entrees for a lot of the processed stuff. More kids bought the lunches, and the district cut its losses significantly. It's a small district, though, and it charges high-school students $3.50 per meal, among the highest prices in the state.

Other local chefs, including Holly Smith of Café Juanita, offered their services to schools after the first lady called upon them last spring to help. Those efforts are just beginning.

In the most famous innovation, the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District got rid of nearly all processed foods, and switched to whole grains and grass-fed meats. The district incorporated nutrition into its curriculum and built a learning garden. Still, only 25 percent of kids there opt to eat the school lunch. That's half Washington's rate.

Experts are looking at other options, like figuring out better ways to teach kids about healthy eating. Public Health-Seattle & King County, for example, employs nutrition educators who do tasting and cooking with students in six Seattle schools, to broaden their palates.

Elsewhere, experts are looking for other answers — even in marketing. In New York, produce sales went up when schools improved the lighting over the fruit bin, and when they moved it to a more prominent location.

Trickery is another option. Jamie Oliver, for example, sneaked more vegetables into the spaghetti sauce.

But given all the constraints, improving school lunch will inevitably be a slow process.

"It's an evolution," Boutin says. "We just have to find recipes that the kids want to eat."

Maureen O'Hagan is a Seattle Times staff reporter. She can be reached at 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.

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