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Mystery Meat

Our intrepid reporter risks the weird world of cafeteria food

By David Templeton

AMY, A WAITRESS at a downtown Petaluma coffeehouse, slides my steaming latte across the counter, chatting amiably about elementary school cafeteria food as she takes my two dollars and makes the change. "Cafeteria food made me throw up in second grade," she gleefully confides, lowering her voice to avoid offending the other customers. "When I stood in line at El Verano Elementary in Sonoma, this smell came out of the cafeteria and just about knocked me over. I threw up my breakfast. Fruit Loops. I couldn't eat lunch, and I never went back."

I can't help wondering what was on the menu that day. Amy, evidently, has blocked the actual entrée out of her mind.

"It was something meaty and saucy," she shrugs. "Whatever it was, it was extremely gross."

WITH SUCH THOUGHTS in my head, I prepare myself to head out to eat lunch at a couple of local schools. It's been 20 years since I've eaten in a public school cafeteria, where sloppy joes were standard fare and fresh fruit existed primarily to be our favorite airborne projectile. Fish sticks were thought of as health food and ketchup was considered our helping of vegetables.

So how much has school food changed over the years? Well, this year just about half of the children in the United States, some 25 million of them, will eat lunch provided by their schools, lunches that the federal government has recently declared should contain at least one third of the recommended daily allowances of, well, everything. With over 50 new recipes distributed to school kitchens and a larger-than-ever larder of USDA food supplies, school lunches are bound to come into the 1990s before the decade is over. But owing to the individuality of Americans, the success of these health-prone practices has been felt in varying degrees.

Though most public schools have gotten the message, food service professionals walk a fine line between what is available with existing budget constraints, what is nutritious and energy-building for the students, and what the students will actually put into their mouths.

In the main, there seems to have been in recent years a remarkable local effort to improve the quality of the food. Santa Rosa schools have brought in nutritionist Elena Debolt to redesign the food, along with the environment in which students eat. Cafeterias are now called food centers, and each sports a colorful sign that bears the motto "Food with Attitude," a nutrition-conscious blend of good food that is attractive to youngsters.

"There is a definite shift away from the less healthy school food of the past," Debolt affirms. "In Santa Rosa we're trying to do it in a way that kids will respond to."

Unconfirmed rumors of bean sprout sandwiches and tofu salad in certain west county schools persist. And the four-school Old Adobe School District has the distinction of being one of the few schools in the Bay Area to bake its own bread every morning.

"We bake our bread, and we cook up healthy meals. It's beautiful food," says Billye Raye Lipscomb, Old Adobe district's superintendent. "Last year we sent all four chefs to be trained for a few days at the California Culinary Academy. I thought that was a real kick in the britches. We found that they were offering a terrific deal, and we thought 'Why not?'" For a modest $125 training fee, Old Adobe's cafeteria workers spent time at the San Francisco­based CCA, considered one of the finest teaching facilities in the world, learning some of the healthful, inventive menu-making tips that have distinguished the academy.

"We wanted to make healthier food that kids wouldn't balk at," Lipscomb explains. "Less salt, less sugar, less fat. That kind of thing." The standard fare includes such things as baked chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, and garlic bread, along with staples such as pizza and hot dogs.

Fortunate with its funding, each Old Adobe district school was built with its own kitchen, an amenity many campuses lack. But with an emphasis on the bottom line, Old Adobe is simply cooking up what other schools possessing their own kitchens could also be doing. "We all get the same kinds of commodities," says Lipscomb of the USDA and bulk foods provided to the various districts. "And I'm amazed at the quality of what comes to us.

"Most kids are brought up eating junk food," she continues. "You offer some people a baked chicken and they don't know what to do with it. So we're not removing the kids' favorites, but we are serving it in a more healthy way." Later, she laughs, "It's kind of like being at home--you show that you care about people by feeding them."

MY RESPONSIBILITY is to give the kids what they want, and to also balance the budget," says Deana Pucciarelli, food services supervisor at Healdsburg High School, an institution that seems caught between the old way and the new way, culinarily speaking. A recently passed bond measure has made possible a new kitchen facility, which will begin construction in May, and will allow Pucciarelli, also a CCA-trained chef, more room to expand creatively. A salad bar is even possible, though she is quick to point out that past attempts to offer vegetarian dishes resulted in pounds of food going to waste. "If it's not reinforced at home," she adds, "it's difficult to influence the kids' eating habits at school alone."

Later, standing in the HHS cafeteria, I am besieged with free advice. "Do yourself a favor," pleads a student named Shannon. "Don't eat that." I have just procured a square-shaped slab of pizza and a bowl of Tater Tots. Other choices at the snack bar­like counter include burritos, nachos, and chicken chimichangas.

"Here's how you eat the Tater Tots," interjects someone from the next table. "Order the nachos. Dump the corn chips and pour the cheese over the Tater Tots. They're kind of OK that way."

"It's disgusting and greasy," says Kelly, a junior, summing up her view of the school food in general. "I usually just go to McDonald's." Candice, another junior, would like to see a salad bar on campus, but she appears to be in the vegetarian minority.

I glance at my pizza, still untouched. Standing up, I hold the carton in the air and face the table across the aisle.

"Who wants a free piece of pizza!" I shout, as hands shoot up all around me. Seconds later, it has been entirely devoured.

"Is it good?" I ask the recipient of my lunch. He shrugs. "It's good enough."

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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