SCHOOL LUNCH

Cafeterias are as noisy as ever, but the food has changed to reflect trends in adult fare - right down to kiddie salad bars

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Hector has school lunches all figured out. They're ``wonderful'' here at Agassiz Grammar School, he says. ``They're good for you. They give you some muscles. It's got a lot of `birons,''' he says, meaning ``vitamins.'' The other first-graders filing into this brightly colored cafeteria with wall-to-wall noise may not have the child-size grasp of nutrition that Hector does. But they are likely aware of other grownup food trends seeping into the nation's school lunch rooms, including ethnic cuisines and fast food. Just like adults, children have become sophisticated consumers - and magnets for marketers.

This last point has made the cafeteria's job tougher. Children make many more eating decisions nowadays, says Victoria Leonard, director of the Children's Nutrition Project with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSIPI). Children say where their family eats out. Watching an estimated 40,000 commercials a year, ``kids think they know food and they know that food is fries, burgers, and a Coke,'' says Ms. Leonard. ``When they see meatloaf and potatoes, they say `yuck.''' They want their burgers wrapped, she adds.

Children also have more buying power than ever before. ``All the kids have a buck on them,'' Leonard notes. They can always buy a snack or a candy bar.

With more single and working parents, and more children in poverty, the nutritional role of school meals has become increasingly important, says a CSIPI report. Meal cards in hand, many of the Agassiz students receive today's lunch (chicken-patty sandwich, potato puffs, corn, peach slices, and milk) for free or at a reduced price. Of the 24 million children in some 90,000 schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, half get reduced cost or free lunches.

``Increasingly, the face of poverty is young,'' says Kevin Dando, government affairs specialist with The American School Food Service Association in Washington. ``That's our job: to protect the nutrition of the kids. They're our customers,'' he continues, adding that the quality of school lunches keeps improving.

Last year CSIPI recommended that lunches include more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and foods with less fat. But say something is ``good for you'' to children, and you're apt to get a slew of wrinkled noses.

``If it's `healthy,' kids won't eat it,'' says Helen Mont-Ferguson, food service director for Boston Public Schools. When schools here offered unbreaded chicken nuggets, they flopped: ``They like them breaded,'' she says.

Children want ``what's most similar to what's offered in fast-food chains,'' Ms. Mont-Ferguson continues. As first-grader Hector puts it, he likes McDonald's because ``they have burgers and toys and sodas.''

``Children know what they like; we know we need to serve them good food and we try to work in that middle area,'' says school-food expert Dando. Kids are raised on multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns, he notes.

The task of changing school menus, programs, and attitudes is ``so enormous and the customers are such a picky lot,'' says Phil Shanholtzer, a US Department of Agriculture spokesman who advocates gradual change. Some schools in California, for example, are trying salad bars, baked-potato bars, taco bars, nutrition education, and student input.

In the Conejo Valley (Calif.) Unified School District, food service administrator Connie Noggle has seen salad bars take off in elementary schools. ``They love it. I was just amazed,'' she said by phone. ``I could not believe the participation at the salad-bar level for first- and second-graders. They are neat and tidy.'' Why the success? ``I think it goes back to the thing that kids like to serve themselves,'' she says.

Ethnic foods are making inroads, too, such as Asian and Mexican dishes, reflecting a demographic change in US society. There are 10 ethnic groups represented in Boston's schools, says Mont-Ferguson.

But tight school budgets discourage innovation: ``The budget is overwhelmingly the major concern,'' says Dando. Federal subsidies have not kept pace with inflation, Leonard notes.

There is a bright spot in every cafeteria, nationwide, however: It's the No. 1 meal, hands down, says Leonard.

``They love pizza!'' says Camilla LaSalla, manager of Agassiz Grammar School's food service program. Fifth-grader Veronica agrees, but make sure you don't get a piece that has burned cheese on the top, she cautions.

As for this particular menu today, eight-year-old James does not recommend the peaches: ``They're juicy and when you bite into them there's, like, a string and it's hard to chew.''

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