Mystery meat. Is schoolchildren's cafeteria food out to lunch? `WHAT IS IT TODAY?'

AS school cafeterias gear up for the new year, the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy has issued a report aimed at improving the quality of the National School Lunch Program. ``Many schools around the country continue to serve lunches loaded with saturated fat, while the surgeon general has stated that reducing intake of fat is the most significant change Americans can make in eating a more healthful diet,'' says Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice, in Washington.

``We're concerned that the main courses are often full of fat and too often fried. This is discouraging, since many schoolchildren eat little more than the main course,'' Ms. Haas comments.

``Although the United States Department of Agriculture issued the Dietary Guidelines in 1980, it has done little to ensure that they are followed in one of the critical programs that it oversees - the National School Health Program,'' Haas continues.

``Not only has USDA not seen to it that schools cut back on fat, but many of the foods provided to the schools under the commodity purchase program contribute to the high-fat menus served.''

Haas noted that a number of school districts have used some creativity in providing a complete menu that meets the spirit of the US Dietary Guidelines, while at the same time serving foods that are popular with the students.

``We found that many schools are making changes for the better, particularly in side dishes and desserts, often including vegetables or fresh fruits,'' she reports.

The school lunch program has a lot going for it. It provides food at a reasonable price, or even at no cost, for those who can't afford it. For many children, it is the only healthful food they get all day.

A number of schools have been cited for making innovative strides in providing better menus, according to the Public Voice report.

For example, instead of topping a hot dog with chili, some schools are topping a single baked potato with chili. The group applauded the choice of chili as a topping, over the often-served ham and cheese topping, which is high in fat and sodium.

Eileen Kugler, also of Public Voice, gives an example of a traditional school lunch: chicken, fried with skin on and with a bread coating, potato with fatty gravy, a cheese biscuit, and pudding with whipped cream.

``A healthfully modified lunch would include the same basic chicken, but broiled with lemon and garlic or ginger or other interesting seasoning, steamed vegetables on the side, whole grain bread baked on premises, and an apple dessert,'' says Ms. Kugler.

``One question that always comes up is whether kids will eat the vegetables even if you do add an interesting seasoning,'' Kugler comments.

``The answer is, of course, some just won't touch vegetables. Many just eat the main course.

``We looked at lunches all over the United States. By and large, most main courses are too fatty - lots of hot dogs and lots of ground beef.

Here are some of the good ones:

``Spaghetti with tomato sauce and ground beef [not more than 20 percent fat], steamed broccoli, freshly baked bread, and grapes served in the Portland, Ore., district.

``Baked potato topped with chili, raw broccoli and carrots, and sweet potato pie as served in the Denver school district.

``Homemade pizza with cheese and tomato sauce, tossed salad of lettuce, cabbage, tomato, and dressing; homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies from the Boston school district.''

Here are some tips for preparing school lunches that ``make the grade'':

Increase fruits and vegetables, particularly vegetables in main-course offerings.

Whenever possible, bake or oven-fry instead of frying in deep fat.

Offer skim or 1 percent milk.

Serve more fiber-rich whole grain breads and pastas. Substitute whole grain flour for half the amount of white flour in quick breads and cookies.

Skim fat from soups and stews. Cool canned meats in the refrigerator so that the congealed fat can be removed.

Substitute lentils for all or part of the meat in dishes like chili or Sloppy Joes.

Use plain low-fat or nonfat yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese in place of sour cream or mayonnaise.

Prepare your own salad dressing, cutting down on the amount of oil and salt.

Serve less dressing on salads. Offer pre-packaged low-fat dressings.

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