School lunches. They're gooey, they're greasy and they're gross. Warmed up hours ahead and prepackaged who knows how long ago. And they taste bad too.
True or not, that's what kids at some of the county's largest school districts say. And they don't seem to care that food service managers are doing their best to offer fresher, healthier, better-tasting meals for less than $2 in most cases.
It could be lunchroom lore, picky palates, peer pressure or merely financial pressure that keeps them out of the cafeteria lines. But countywide, only 40% to 60% of a seemingly captive clientele buy school lunches.
Some of the reasons students offered during recent visits to several county schools:
"They keep the food here for five years before they serve it to us," said 11-year-old Bryttnee Dailey, a fifth-grader at Park Oaks Elementary School in Thousand Oaks who frequently eats school lunches.
"And the lunch lady is mean and yells at us," Brent Bedford, 11, added.
Across the county, students at Poinsettia Elementary School in Ventura mobbed a reporter to add their critiques.
"School lunch is like imitation food. It's gross," said 10-year-old Evan Bloom, who prefers his mom-packed lunches of tortellini or hamburgers.
Older students have some questions about cafeteria food as well.
Leanna Layton, a senior at Royal High School in Simi Valley, said choices on her campus are limited and unappealing.
"I used to buy school lunch all the time when we lived in Colorado," she said. "And then I came out here, and I was like, 'Eeuuuuw.' " She brings her own lunch or buys a bagel now.
Junior Brad Jones brings his lunch as well.
"I think the food is better from home and it's more cost-efficient. I have four sisters," he said.
The bad rap on school lunches comes despite the redoubled efforts of food service managers around the county to get out the fat, pump up the nutrition, improve taste and presentation and sell more food at affordable prices.
The effort began countywide after a U.S. Department of Agriculture report two years ago blasted school lunches for their high fat and salt content and lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since then, many Ventura County schools have revamped their menus, changed their vendors and put more emphasis on the students as customers. To please those customers, they are still serving pizza, the hands-down favorite, as well as burgers, fries, hot dogs and burritos.
But most now have a secret twist.
Much of the pizza, except that purchased from chain restaurants, is topped with low-fat cheese, and the beans in the burritos have no lard and little oil. The burgers are made with lean meat, and most of the fries are cooked in the oven.
The dogs are made of ground chicken or turkey. Even the corn dogs are "flash fried" in oil and then reheated in the oven to keep the fat content down. Salt is added sparingly in most cases or not at all.
Some districts also cut the butter in the cookies and substitute apple sauce, reducing sugar in favor of concentrated fruit juice.
In fact, in some districts such as Conejo Unified in Thousand Oaks, the dietitians are even sneaking tofu into the burgers, mixing the soybean paste with ground meat to squeeze out more fat and keep protein levels high.
"We want to improve the meals in such a way that the kids don't notice they are getting things that are good for them," said Connie Noggle, food service administrator for the Conejo district.
Noggle and other food service managers would like to sell more lunches to keep their self-sufficient programs running in the black.
She estimates that about 40% of the 18,000 students in her district buy school lunches, which cost $1.60 at elementary schools. High schools serve meals a la carte.
But the sales are uneven at different campuses. At some schools, up to 70% of the students buy hot lunches, but the percentage is as low as 30% at other schools.
Those schools that sell the fewest lunches still require cafeteria workers to prepare and serve the food, but recover very little revenue from purchases. Thus there is an economic incentive for schools to compete with the "pack-it-at-home" crowd.
But primarily, Noggle said, she would like to see more children participate in the school lunch program so that they get a nutritious meal.
"We're getting better," said Noggle, who gave assurance that food is definitely not kept for five years before it's given to children. "But we still have a ways to go."
Heading a public school lunch program presents a dilemma, she said.
"We have to sell these lunches," she said. "But I'm a registered dietitian and I have a hard time being caught in between having to break even and furnishing the kids a nutritious meal. We have to find a meal they'll eat, and that's not easy."
A sampling of opinions during a recent lunch hour at Park Oaks Elementary School in Thousand Oaks produced mixed reviews.
"Sometimes I just throw my food away," said Brejane Griffin, 11, who was eating a bean and cheese burrito school lunch, which included salad, rice and juice or milk.
"There are too many beans," complained Rocio Garcia, 10, also at Park Oaks. "But sometimes the food is really good. I like the soft tacos and hamburgers."
The students are sometimes hard to please, Noggle said, because many eat a steady diet of salty, fatty fast food at home.
All public schools receive such commodities as meats and oils from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the department is now starting to send more low-fat foods and include more fruits and vegetables, food managers say.
As part of Conejo's program to increase nutritional awareness, the district's menus include a computerized food analysis, listing the week's average for calories, fat, protein, calcium, iron and Vitamin C. On weekly average, 27% to 30% of the calories in the choices come from fat. That is lower than the USDA now recommends but will meet guidelines expected out next year.
There are only a few other districts in California that provide the analysis, and no others in the county, Noggle said. But Ventura Unified hopes to have an analysis on its menus later this year.
That innovation should help parents and students--the customers--know what they're getting, officials say.
Thinking of students as customers is among the changes that Ed Diaz introduced at Ventura Unified when he took over as food service manager there.
"Before, we may have had a crusty old employee telling kids to move on through the line," Diaz said. "We've done a lot of training to reorient the school service worker to perceive the child walking through the line as a customer and not a captive."
Some food service workers didn't like it, he said. Other changes he made met with opposition as well. He stopped ordering premade burritos and started ordering lean beef, more vegetables and more fruit.
"They weren't happy when I told my food service managers that they were going to have to make 8,000 burritos by hand a day," Diaz said.
On a recent visit to Will Rogers Elementary School in Ventura, those hand-made burritos got good reviews.
"I love it," second-grader Elizabeth Gurkweitz said. "Especially when it doesn't have salsa."
Diaz pointed to a student eating a doughnut from his sack lunch.
"I'll put my food up against anything that's brought from home," he said.
Ventura High School food manager Beverly Henry bragged about the vegetable medley offered on a recent menu.
"It's got broccoli, crookneck squash, all sorts of things," she said. "I thought the kids wouldn't eat this stuff, but they love it."
Diaz has also started up a daily alternative at the high school that features high-carbohydrate, low-fat meals. The so-called Performance Food Center will soon feature a flashy cart with its name in lights and eventually be offered at Buena High School as well.
Diaz and Henry will soon face stiff competition when a Taco Bell restaurant moves in across the street. Ventura High School students can leave the campus during lunch.
But Diaz isn't worried. The popular fast-food restaurant will get plenty of students who want to hang out and buy large drinks, he said. But the food is so good and so much cheaper at school that the students will come back to the cafeteria to eat, he predicts.
"I'll put my burrito up against theirs any day," Diaz said.
Although Ventura's secondary schools still offer the good-tasting, high-fat pizza from the national chains, Diaz pulled that pizza out of the elementary schools. In its place, he offers pizza made with low-fat, low-salt materials.
"They wanted to lynch me when I did that," he said. "But the kids adjust and they like the pizza we serve just as well."
Ten-year-old Tana Mason at Poinsettia School disagreed.
"I like some stuff, but sometimes you can't really tell what some stuff is," she said. "Their pizza looks different, not very good."
Diaz estimates he sells his $1.40 lunches to about 55% of students at elementary schools and about 60% in secondary schools, where students pay $1.75 for full lunches. But his target is 100%.
"I know I'll never get that," he said. "But that's my goal."
In the Oak Park Unified School District, pizza from the national chains is still the norm, served twice a week in the elementary schools and three times a week in high school.
"My sales are always twice as high on pizza days as they are on any other," said Virginia Leigh, the food service manager for the small district south of Thousand Oaks.
About 40% of the students in the 2,500-pupil district buy full lunches or lunch entrees. Full meals run $2.25 at secondary schools and $2 on elementary school campuses.
Leigh said her sales are almost double from a few years ago when the menu and meals were prepared by a contract food service company. Since then, she has removed the Mexican food from the menu, which students didn't like, and replaced some less popular items with favorites, like pizza.
"We just try to do the best we can and still give them something they'll eat," she said. "Mom and Dad teach them to eat this stuff. Kids learn to eat at home."
The kids at Oxnard Elementary District like Mexican food and see it on the menu once or twice a week. Pizza is also a regular. But those dishes are again made with low-fat ingredients, said Barbara Myers, director of child nutrition.
Oxnard is very conscious of how the food looks and how it smells, as well as nutrition and taste, she said.
"For kids, it's very important how the food is presented," she said. "Kids eat with their eyes and their [sense of smell]."
She sells food to nearly 60% of the district's 13,500 students.
In Simi Valley, the students have been eating low-fat meals for years, said Judy La Rosa, food service manager for the 18,800-student district.
"We were doing it even before it was in vogue," she said. "We use low-fat mayonnaise, low-fat cottage cheese. We top the pizza with a low-fat mozzarella. And we don't serve fat-laden desserts."
Christina Romano, a 17-year-old senior at Royal, appreciates the variety on the school lunch menu.
"They have good veggie sandwiches," she said. She had brought a lunch from home, with a turkey sandwich, chips, cookies and carrots.
But she and other students complained that the food was often cold, poorly presented, and greasy.
Holly Miller, a sophomore, said she prefers to bring her lunch from home so that she knows all the ingredients that went into preparing the food.
"And anyway, there are seven kids in my family," she said. "We just don't have the money for it."