From Yuck to Yum!

Making school lunches better

Branciforte Middle School student Geneva Schlafly with one of Chef Jamie Smith’s creations: barbecued chicken, fresh coleslaw, and locally grown strawberries.

Photographs by Lane Johnson

It’s lunchtime at Fisher Middle School in Los Gatos, and the cafeteria is in full swing. Nearly 500 students—about half of the school’s enrollment—get in line, select food and pay for it, find a place to sit, eat lunch, and hang out with their friends. It all takes place in a harried 35 minutes.

The students line up behind one of three counters: Burger Zone, Energy Zone, or Pizza, which is by far the most crowded. Jim LaTorre, the school’s energetic vice principal, calls out, “Orange chicken!” and “Walk, please!” The lines move quickly. Within 12 minutes, most of the students have purchased their lunches and are eating outside in the sunshine. “On rainy days, it’s a lot more crowded in here,” says Lora Dill, a food service employee.

Fisher is just one of the over 9,000 California public schools serving millions of hot lunches every day. More than 31 million U.S. children participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), with close to 20 million receiving a free or reduced-fee lunch. Approved by the federal government in 1946, the NSLP “makes it possible for all school children in the United States to receive a nutritious lunch every school day,” according to the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

Although federal guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) specify the types and amounts of protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables, and grains that a school lunch must contain, too often the food served to school-aged children is far from nutritious. According to Michael K. Stone’s “Rethinking Lunchtime,” a recent publication from the Center for Ecoliteracy, most school lunches are “nondescript, greasy and calorie-heavy, [and packaged] in pre-processed, heat-and-serve units shipped from thousands of miles away.”

That’s partly because federally subsidized food, known as “commodities,” is essentially free to public schools, and cost-cutting is key with school lunches. With its enormous purchasing power, the USDA can obtain huge quantities of food from farmers for a much lower price than any school can. More than half of these commodities go to processing companies, which churn out pizza toppings, sausage patties, bologna, chicken nuggets, fruit pops, and other processed items. This processing often reduces the nutritional quality of the food by adding salt, sugar, and fat.

From a distribution standpoint, processing makes sense. “Schools get a certain amount of money to buy food,” says Laura Stec, chef and author of Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming. “It’s easier to ship frozen ground beef than fresh apples.”

Stec was recently involved in trying to create a local food product line for the National School Lunch Program. She worked together with a small local producer, Pescadero Foods. Stec says, “We made chili and several different soups, including a vegetarian option.”

But to be competitive, the meal had to cost no more than 90 cents per serving. “That 90 cents includes the soup or chili, the bowl, spoon, a grain, and milk,” she says. The only way to achieve this extremely low price is “to buy from the commodities market,” which effectively rules out small, local food producers.

At Fisher Middle School, food services manager Lupe Peña manages to purchase most food from non-USDA providers. “Only about 10 percent of our food comes from commodities,” she says. Food such as cheeses, sliced meats, and some fruits such as pears, apples, kiwi, and oranges, all which travel well, are purchased from the USDA. However, “there is no guarantee that we’ll get what we ask for, or in the quantities we need,” she says.

“All our bread and milk are locally sourced,” Peña says. “For example, our milk comes from Berkeley Farms.” Fisher’s kitchen serves only whole grains, and its very popular pepperoni pizza is made with a whole-wheat crust. “We always have something organic and a vegetarian dish.”

Peña is planning an expansion of the salad bar. On Wednesdays, students will have a choice of baked potatoes with toppings, pasta, and a make-it-yourself sandwich area in addition to the regular salad bar.

At Santa Cruz City Schools, Food Services Manager Jamie Smith has also found creative ways to work around the processed lunch problem. Additionally, he labors to make healthy food appealing to kids. The school salad bar, for example, is “a taco salad bar. I want to make a menu with food that kids will eat, not one that looks good on paper,” Smith says.

Smith, who publishes his menus a year in advance at the school district’s lunch website,, has implemented many progressive changes during his nearly three years as Food Services Manager.

“The website is part of my effort to re-brand our lunch program,” Smith says. “I started out slowly—eliminating soft drinks and fast food—then went for less obvious things, such as vegetarian options, local produce, and no beef.”

The school district uses low-fat chicken and turkey in place of beef in all of its dishes. In addition to lunch, Santa Cruz City Schools provide breakfast for their students. “We started baking at breakfast,” Smith says. “Right away, the kids noticed the wonderful smell of fresh bread that spread throughout the campus.”

Ninety percent of the students who buy lunch at Santa Cruz City Schools qualify for the free or reduced meal plan (FRMP). To make ends meet, Smith accepts a lot of food from the USDA commodities program, such as beans, lentils, brown rice, canned tomato products, and unprocessed chicken and turkey.

“I need to be aware of how affordable the food is,” Smith says. “My customers (i.e., students) and their parents count on these meals. I have to keep them healthy and inexpensive.”

Like many schools across the country, several of the 13 schools in the Santa Cruz City Schools District do not have the funds to own and operate a full cafeteria kitchen. Schools without kitchens usually can serve only pre-processed, frozen food that can be easily reheated, such as poultry patties and nuggets.

“Most of the schools have a re-therm oven,” or an oven only suited for heating food, says Smith. “So we make the food in our central kitchen, cool it, package it in serving containers, and then drive it by truck to the other schools.”

One of Smith’s most popular lunches is a Chinese entrée, packed into the same white takeout boxes that a restaurant might use. “It’s more fun for the kids to get the food in an appropriate package,” he says.

But just like at Fisher Middle School, pizza is by far the Santa Cruz students’ favorite dish. Smith does what he can to make it healthy by giving it a cornmeal and whole-wheat crust, and using low-fat and low-sodium cheese and turkey pepperoni.

“This is not a glamorous job, and we work hard,” says Smith. “However, I know we’re making a positive impact on families.”