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Originally published September 25, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified September 27, 2010 at 7:13 AM

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School cafeteria food must be nutritious and kid-friendly

The typical tray in the Seattle School District's lunch line — with Beef Teriyaki Dippers, Mozzarella Bread Sticks, Salad, Fruit and a Brownie — illustrates the challenges of preparing meals that not only are nutritious and compliant with federal standards but also will get eaten by finicky kids who don't all come with a desire to eat the healthful stuff.

Today, it's Beef Teriyaki Dippers. Grown-ups say nix that kind of processed food; kids say bring it. Schools want what's affordable. Plus they're wary about raw meat, which can harbor dangerous bugs. In 1998, 11 E. coli cases were linked with undercooked taco meat at a Benton County school. A jury put damages at $4.6 million. And in the 1993 Jack in the Box case, 500 people in Washington got sick and three children died from undercooked burgers. That really changed things at Seattle Public Schools. Precooked, processed items such as the dippers featured on this typical tray seemed safer than raw.

Salad

Kids are offered salad, but often they don't eat these fresh veggies. Should they serve different kinds of greens, maybe? That would be a lot more expensive. Besides, are kids really clamoring for mesclun?

Carrots and Cauliflower

Almost all Seattle schools feature a rotating cast of raw veggies in their salad bars. Carrots and cauliflower are easy for little ones to eat with their hands. They require minimal labor, a huge consideration when serving so many. And they're full of vitamins, helping meet USDA rules. One flaw: The nutrients mean nothing if the kids don't eat the stuff. Force feeding, anyone?

Grapes

Kids love them, though custodians are less fond of chasing these roly-polys around the floor. Every day, the district offers fruit thought it isn't the big, gleaming specimens you see in groceries. Often, schools special-order smaller fruit for smaller appetites and budgets. And while some of it is local, a lot isn't. One hurdle: Washington's biggest growing season is summer, when school's out.

Rice

Seattle used to serve white rice, but began offering brown a few years ago. More nutritious; less kid-friendly. Many schools have made several changes like this (whole wheat bread instead of white, for example) and each can cost thousands of dollars. That means less money for entrees, which are the biggest target of critics.

Brownie

When dessert is on the menu, it's often to help a school meet its USDA calorie minimums. Sometimes, districts have trouble keeping calories up. The solution? Sugar. Still, the district bakes its own brownies, replacing some of the fat with applesauce. Milk

Kids choose chocolate over white, 2-to-1. Why give them a choice? Some argue that chocolate milk is still loaded with calcium and other nutrients, and if it weren't for the sweet stuff, many kids would opt for water, which has no nutrients.

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