Not too many years ago, a public school lunch meant a foil-covered tray containing a culinary delight such as chicken fried steak, a sloppy Joe, or meat loaf with gloppy brown gravy. Off to the side would be some wilted carrot sticks, half a canned peach and a piece of chocolate cake or gingerbread.
Times have changed. The salad days are here. School cafeterias are revamping their offerings to promote health and better eating habits in children. That, school officials hope, will mean better digestion and increased attention spans now and fewer clogged arteries in the future.
The Santa Monica-Malibu school district is introducing salad bars this year. Culver City schools did so last year. And throughout the Westside, school food service directors are adopting tactics designed to discourage junk food consumption and steer students toward healthier, more balanced lunches.
The state Department of Education, meanwhile, plans to issue a set of recommended standards this spring for the fat, cholesterol and other nutritional content of school lunches. In anticipation of the state guidelines, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica-Malibu, Los Angeles and other school districts in Southern California jointly applied last month for a $300,000, three-year state grant that would establish a regional network to publicize the nutritional guidelines and improve instruction about proper eating habits.
Beverly Hills schools have been pioneers on the healthy eating front. With funds provided by the Neil Konheim Foundation, the Beverly Hills Unified School District six years ago instituted a comprehensive nutrition education program called Health Champions.
As part of the curriculum, first-graders in Maureen Winicke's class at Beverly Vista Elementary School on a recent day chanted: "Every time I take a bite, I choose a heart-healthy delight." They then proceeded to name and classify an assortment of less desireable foods--potato latkes, candy, ice cream, bacon--that are high in sugar, salt or fat.
The Health Champions program also provides cholesterol, blood pressure and other health screening tests, workbooks and songs about nutrition, and salad bars in the cafeterias. The Konheim Foundation started a similar program this year in Santa Monica's Will Rogers Elementary School.
The health kick has even meant new looks for stark cafeterias. Potted plants and smaller tables reduce the institutional feel of the cafeterias, food service directors say. Music systems serenade the youngsters with what Kit Dreyfuss, Health Champions coordinator for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, describes as "child-oriented Muzak." The goal, Dreyfuss said, is to have the children "eat slower, digest better, and then go out to play all refreshed, instead of cramming down their food and running out."
Compared to a decade ago, school menus generally have less sugar, salt, fat and cholesterol and more whole wheat products, fresh produce and fiber. Elementary school students are served more chef salads and fewer corn dogs.
At the cafeteria serving Culver City Middle School and Culver City High, for example, sweets such as brownies, cinnamon rolls and cake, were eliminated this year. Other high-fat or high-salt items that used to be offered individually--nachos, chili, pizza--are now sold only with salad, fruit and milk. No longer can a student fashion a lunch of chocolate cake, French fries and a soft drink, said Marie Boland, food service supervisor. "We kind of forced them into a complete, (balanced) lunch."