Back To School : COUNTYWIDE : Schools Spruce Up Lunch Offerings

Mystery meat, gray mashed potatoes and mushy mixed vegetables are the memories many former students have of school lunches.

But food specialists at the county’s school districts say things have changed. School lunches now feature charcoal-grilled burgers, curly fries and fresh vegetables. Pizza stands, salad bars and taco bars are becoming increasingly common.

“I think casseroles have gone by the wayside,” said Karen Peterson, director of food services for the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “I don’t know if you ever ate in school, but what I remember was the served meal, where you got all five components in a tray. But now we have three to five entree choices, and they can choose a hot vegetable or a cold vegetable and a fresh fruit or a canned fruit.”

Peterson said students are more aware about nutrition and demand more choices.


“Even the seventh-graders are more sophisticated,” Peterson said.

Saddleback Valley charges $1.50 for a basic lunch at its 21 elementary schools and $1.80 at its three middle schools and four high schools. At the secondary level, though, most students buy a la carte items like hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos and burritos, Peterson said.

The popularity of items varies by age group and location. In the Newport-Mesa Unified District, for example, bottled water is a big seller.

“Students are very health-conscious in the Newport area. Every time we tell people that, they are just amazed,” said Jan Monforte, director of food services for Newport-Mesa.


Monforte and officials at other districts said schools have been reducing fat and sodium in menus, adding fiber and emphasizing healthy nutrition.

An addition this year at Saddleback Valley is the “nutrition train,” an elementary school program with cars featuring the various food groups. The train features the “vegimals” car, the “dairyland express” and others.

Along with nutrition, packaging and preparation are of great concern to youngsters these days. Newport-Mesa saw a big increase in lunch sales at its high schools last year after it redecorated its cafeterias using neon signs and bright red accents, Monforte said.

Orange Unified recently changed the wrapping on its lunches for elementary students.


“We used to use a foil overwrap and you couldn’t see the food,” said Judy Ross, director of nutrition services. “The children used to want to unwrap them to see what was underneath. Now there’s a clear package on top and you can see inside.”

Districts constantly make changes in the food they serve based on what sells. Orange Unified will test market a 96% fat-free hamburger on a whole wheat bun in conjunction with Healthy Heart Week, Sept. 23 through 27.

“If the kids like it, then we’ll put it on the menu,” Ross said.