Lunchtime diners have it their way |

Lunchtime diners have it their way

Greg Risling

Cafeteria food.

It conjures up images of soggy sandwiches, bruised fruit and carton milk.

Somehow schools are keeping kids in the normally drab dining hall. And the students are banging their pastel-colored plastic trays craving more sustenance.

The answer is simple: fast food.

Hamburgers, fries and pizza have always been part of a school meal but corporate chains have elbowed their way into cafeterias. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are being dished out at many of the middle and high schools and they are well-received among students.

The Quarter Pounder has replaced the sloppy joe. Curly fries knocked off the wedge-cut. Macaroni and cheese gets bumped for rice and noodles.

Schools have progressively moved to menus that are low in fat and nutritious yet maintain a diversity of choices. The traditional cafeteria experience has changed. And, depending on who you talk to, it’s for the better or the worse.

26 million served

More than 26 million school lunches will be served across the United States today and approximately 13 percent of them will include some form of fast food. School districts have incorporated the popular provisions into their daily menus, while some have offered a la carte carts with the moniker of a major chain. A slice of Straw Hat Pizza, for instance, can be accompanied by a piece of fruit, a beverage and a small salad for a reasonable price.

Pat Howard, the director of child nutrition for the Lake Tahoe Unified School District, puts bids on fast food chains and takes the lowest price available. Companies must meet mandates or the district will eliminate them from the list.

She said times have changed behind the counter and rather than home-cooked meals kids want what tastes best.

“Children aren’t used to those types of meals,” she said. “They either don’t recognize it or they will throw it away. They like the fast food and there is a big demand for it.”

When McDonald’s appears on the daily menu, Howard notices a 15 percent increase in her counts. She added that educating children about the importance of a balanced meal is easier at the elementary and middle school level than it is in high school.

“In high school, they will eat what they want,” Howard said.

Tali Jaureguito, a 16-year-old junior at South Tahoe High School, said fast food is more accepted than what the cafeteria cooks. With a Cup of Noodles in hand – her favorite treat – Jaureguito believes more fruit and vegetables are needed.

“There are a lot of choices, but more of it is junk food than anything,” she said. “They need to have healthier food like fresh fruit and salad.”

Keeping ’em on campus

By bringing fast food restaurants to the schools, more high school students aren’t leaving the campus, much to the delight of administrators. But are educators seeking healthy meals or keeping a closer eye on the student body?

Samples from Taco Bell and Port of Subs, two menu regulars, show the dietary guidelines are being followed. All of the six burritos offered by the LTUSD have an average of 400 calories and 15 grams of fat. Over a third of the calories can be directly attributed to the fat content.

Depending on what is put between the Port of Subs buns, a small sandwich can pack 350 to 500 calories. Most of the meats are fat free and have very little saturated fat.

During National School Lunch Week (Oct. 13-17), nutritionists want to remind parents that a healthy diet doesn’t happen only at school but at home as well.

“Ideally we want our students to have three squares a day,” said STHS Principal Karen Ellis. “We can give them the choices at school, but parents must also make sure that their kids are eating right.”

With daily dietary guidelines on most products, the federal government in September 1998 will set its own standards for lunch programs. More servings of vegetables and bread have been approved and will be required of school cafeterias.

More school districts are analyzing their food for protein, vitamins and calories. Ellen Leppa, a consultant for the Nevada Department of Education, said it’s important to monitor childrens’ school meals regularly so dietary habits can be studied.

“Children identify with products advertised endlessly and it’s a fact that more of them are eating away from home,” she said. “We want to make sure that menu planning is the best possible thing we can do for children.”

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