FOOD : Lunch Crunch : Schools are looking to cut back on fat, sodium and sugar in student meals without cutting back on taste.

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It's lunchtime at Loma Vista Elementary School in Ventura, and a line of second-graders forms at the salad bar. Hold it. Salad? Kids?

That's right. These kids scoop out lettuce and veggies and top it off with raisins, nuts, pineapple, taco chips, crunchy noodles and salad dressing--sometimes gobs of it.

Then they pile on the required two ounces of ham or cheese. The finale is the Bavarian harvest roll, a whole-wheat nut-and-seed-coated creation that even a kid will try.

"It's our disguised attempt to increase the fiber in their diet," confided Gayla Pierce, food-service director for Ventura Unified School District.

Pierce, like other school food-service directors in the county, is trying to make school lunches healthier. She's replacing ground beef with ground turkey. She's opting for whole-wheat instead of white bread. She's upping fruits and vegetables and cutting way down on breaded chicken and fish.

School lunch programs nationwide have been criticized in recent years for doling out greasy food high in fat, sodium and sugar. Health experts now realize that the old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs chow--remember mystery meat bathed in gravy?--really sticks to the arteries.

Just last week, another diatribe on the subject came from the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy in Washington. Its report said that school lunches across the country contain too much fat--more than the 30% maximum recommended in federal dietary guidelines--increasing the likelihood of children developing heart disease later in life.

"Some complaints about the (school lunch) program were founded," Pierce said. "This is a lifestyle change we're making."

She notified parents earlier this month that they could expect some changes in their children's lunch menu. Chicken nuggets and patties will be cooked unbreaded. Students will see more celery and carrot sticks and fewer hot dogs and corn dogs. Gone is the canned fruit packed in heavy syrup. Low-fat milk will be offered, as well as the government-required whole milk.

The salad bar has been a hit at the Loma Vista school. A diet-conscious Leigh Shannon, 7, summed it up: "I think you get more, and it doesn't give you much weight."

Providing healthier food solves only part of the problem. Getting children to eat it is the other part. In other words, you can lead a kid to broccoli, but you can't make him eat it.

In Oxnard, it was the students who sought changes in the lunch menu.

"The students challenged us--they said, 'We want better food,' " said Michael Wetherbee, director of food service for the Oxnard Union High School District.

To give children more of a voice in lunch menus, Wetherbee conducts food-tasting get-togethers.

Wetherbee has already switched to ground turkey and whole-wheat bread. His deli meat is really turkey, and "the kids are now very accepting of it." He stopped frying his burritos to cut the fat. He uses light mayonnaise.

"I tried a salad bar, but it just ended up being a mess," he said. Getting 2,000 students through the line in only 40 minutes was next to impossible.

In the Conejo Valley Unified School District there is a salad bar at almost every elementary school, and the kids like it.

"They like to make choices," said Connie Noggle, food-service administrator.

Noggle said she also lets students help plan menus and try out new food products. She's tried some items that flopped, like sunflower seeds.

"They're high in fat anyway," she said.

Like other districts, Noggle offers low-fat milk. Her ice cream is really ice milk, and the cheese she serves usually is part skim.

These aren't brand-new changes. "We already had a leg up," she said.

So did the Simi Valley Unified School District, according to its director of food service, Judy LaRossa. The district was offering salad 10 years ago, she said.

She serves up some healthy, appealing dishes that could wean almost any kid off greasy hamburgers and French fries. She hands out a giant pretzel--minus the salt--that students can dip in peanut butter or yogurt. Along with it come some fruits and veggies.

"They're real popular," she said. "That's the way to get them to eat vegetables."

The county's food-service directors said they try to adhere to federal dietary guidelines recommending that no more than 30% of the calories in a meal be derived from fat. But the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy contended in its report that school lunches contained an average of 39.8% fat.

Kevin Dando, government affairs specialist for the American School Food Service Assn., said critics of the school-lunch program make sweeping generalizations.

"They look at a menu and they see hamburgers and French fries," he said, and they assume the worst. "But most of the time the hamburger is lean meat and the fries are not fried. That's not to say we're perfect. But they are overly harsh."

And what good are healthy changes if the student won't buy it, asked Wetherbee. "There are some things kids just don't want to give up, like French fries."

OTHER KID DOINGS:

* The Ventura County Children's Festival kicks off its sixth year with a show Friday featuring the music and comedy of Janet and Judy in "Good Clean Fun" at Buena High School, 7 p.m. Advance tickets are $4.50 for children and $6.50 for adults, $1 more at the door. Tickets are available at Adventures for Kids in Ventura.

* The OK Kids Club at the Oaks Mall in Thousands Oaks features puppeteer Jim Gamble today from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

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