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At Jacoby Creek School in Arcata, billows of steam cloud the plastic food guards that protect the tables of hot food, duplicating the winter fog that mists the cafeteria windows. The smells of ketchup, vegetable soup and yesterday's lasagna mingle with the odors of rubber balls and kid sweat from the game of kickball that finished a scant 10 minutes ago. The giggles and hoots of children echo off the high ceilings, dimming momentarily when the authoritative, deep voices of lunch aides and teachers suggest line-forming and lunch-appropriate behavior. It's time for lunch. School cafeteria lunch.

For anyone who went to school decades ago, the experience has changed remarkably little in some ways. Despite a world that has endured budget cuts, cell phone apps, and No Child Left Behind, school lunch looks, sounds and smells a lot like it did in 1985. Or even 1965. As adult visitors we may be taller and bigger, but we still have to wait in line and not push. There are fewer New Kids on the Block lunchboxes, but the sound of Humboldt rain drumming on a gym-turned-cafeteria roof is eternal.

And yet, something is different. The lunch ladies are far less frightening than they seemed when we were younger; maybe they have gotten nicer. The sheet cake with loads of artificial vanilla frosting, so fondly remembered from fifth grade, is not on the menu any more. In fact, a lot of the items served even 10 years ago have vanished or been altered. No bright orange nachos, no chocolate chip cookies, no fried corn chips, no mysterious sugary orange drink. Desserts are rare and wholesome (think watermelon). Breakfast is expanded now, and all the schools we visited recently serve it. Far from generic Pop Tarts, breakfast includes fresh baked breads, five-grain cereals and fruit. Cooking methods have been changed; bye-bye, deep fry! Even the corn dogs are baked. It's hard not to breathe a tiny (although culinarily appalled) sigh of nostalgia at the fading of so much childhood sugar, grease and empty calories. But today's kids don't wonder where the pudding went; they were never offered it in the first place. Probably for the best (sigh of longing for whipped topping). ...

A tortilla tops the lunch tray at Jacoby Creek School.

As adults, many of us have discovered that less-processed foods, grown closer to our kitchens, taste better than all those garbage calories. And with childhood obesity rampant, far from worrying about our kids getting enough calories, we're concerned with them getting healthy and nutritious meals. In Humboldt, the County Office of Education recently scored a grant from the St. Joseph Health System Foundation to host a series of healthier cooking classes for local cafeteria staff. Nationally, Michelle Obama, highest-profile proponent of changing the way kids are fed in public schools, has made healthy eating her cause celebre. From growing vegetables in the White House garden to championing 2010's Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (which mandated updated nutrition legislation), she has reason to celebrate in 2012; this year saw the USDA release its final version of the new healthier standards, after two years of national feedback. No longer does ketchup count as a vegetable!

There are other, more substantial differences that affect the almost 32 million students who eat hot lunches. The new rules, which are to be phased in over the next three years, include offering eight to 10 ounces of whole grains per week, more beans and twice as many fruits and vegetables. The rules limit salt and ban trans-fat (goodbye, deep-fried potatoes!) but they allow tofu. And they abolish "Nutrient Based Menu Planning," which allowed nutrition requirements to be filled via, for instance, the iron-fortified white flour in animal crackers. These rules apply to all school lunches, not just subsidized students. The federal government, as usual, is big on demands and short on dollars. The feds give schools just 26 to 34 cents per meal -- plus about 22 cents worth of free food -- to supplement the prices children pay, according to the USDA.

It will be challenging to contain costs and meet the guidelines. Autumn Coffman, kitchen manager at the central kitchen for Eureka City Schools, says that although the kitchen has long been serving at least 50 percent whole grain, the switch in the last month to 100 percent whole grains has been expensive. "Whole grains cost more. We're in a situation where we're facing overspending," she said. "The government tells us what we have to serve, and the state won't pay for it." Still, the change puts Eureka ahead of the curve; nationally, schools have that three-year grace period to get up to 100 percent whole grains.

Here behind the Redwood Curtain, school districts are faced with particularly high food costs, high fuel costs and an ever-shrinking state budget. This makes for a Catch 22 in school kitchens -- they need to cut costs while simultaneously attracting more paying lunch eaters, even the picky eaters. (Down in L.A., schools faced a serious backlash in the fall of 2011, when some more adventurous dishes, like chicken jambalaya and tamales, ended up in the trash can.) Somehow, with all the constraints imposed by parents, staff, funding and nutrition requirements, food that kids will eat still has to get on the table, five days a week, all school year long. We visited five different school lunchrooms in Humboldt in late February, from Fortuna to Trinidad, so see how they are coping with the fiscal pressures and impending federal rules.

Ever-popular, pizza makes an appearance at Ferndale Elementary.

From the admirably organic chard at Trinidad (cue Alice Waters cooing) to the individually-wrapped pre-made pizzas (so much shameful plastic!) at Ferndale, lunch seemed be going down without complaint. The kids reported, with adorably gap-toothed smiles, that school lunch is about as popular as it's ever been; they like the pizza and the chocolate milk, not so much the tuna noodle. One thing hasn't changed; hot lunch kids still look with envy at the heavily advertised "snacks" brown-baggers bring. But in this tough economic time, hot lunch is the biggest meal some children will get in a day, and the schools are well aware of that responsibility.  At the schools we sampled, full-price lunches cost from $2.50 to $3.50 and reduced price lunches cost 40 to 60 cents. In some places, up to 90 percent of children qualified to get lunch for free. Schools fund those "free" lunches by applying for reimbursement from the state and the feds. Right now, the feds pay the schools $2.77 to $2.94 per meal and the state adds another 22 cents. If lunches cost more than that to produce, the schools have to make up the difference out of their own budgets. The cost for food alone -- the raw material of lunch, without any labor thrown in -- can vary. At Trinidad Elementary, which grows much of its own produce, food costs around $1 per meal. The central kitchen for Eureka City Schools spends more: $1.28. And schools also have to pay the workers who prepare and serve that food, the folks who clean up, and all the other expenses, like replacing worn pots and pans and heating up the stoves. This explains the lack of local and/or organic produce in public schools.  Financially, it's a challenge to keep everyone fed and healthy.

Hope Reinman dishes up lunch at Trinidad Elementary.

At Trinidad Elementary, Hope Reinman and her staff serve up a truly impressive hot lunch tray. The school boasts its own garden, complete with greenhouses so the bounty can be spread throughout the colder parts of the school year. Rows of chard, spinach, peas and broccoli are a few hundred feet away from the kitchen where the staff cooks up fresh meals like chicken curry over rice, minestrone soup, vegetable frittata and whole wheat pasta with meat or veggie marinara. On the last Wednesday in February, bagels with fresh grated carrots, olives, cream cheese and "slug slime" were on the menu, along with egg salad, mixed organic greens with chickpeas, black bean soup, organic apple slices and milk. The kids can choose chocolate nonfat or plain 1 percent. Alyssa Morehead, a third grader, munched a bagel and cream cheese and apple slices with gusto. "We garden ourselves, mostly in the spring time," she said. "I like carrots and the spinach. Bagels are my favorite." The table agrees en masse. Dislikes include the tomato soup -- today's black bean is acceptable -- and the pizza, oddly enough, is the least favorite. The pizza sounds fantastic to this grownup -- there's not only cheese and pepperoni, but white bean, kale and rosemary, on homemade 50-percent-whole-grain crust.  No home delivery, though.

"We have a mostly traditional menu," says Reinman, "except we use all organic fruits and vegetables." Isn't that cost-prohibitive? "We run a tight ship," she says with a grin. Trinidad charges only $2.50 a meal, the lowest priced lunch out of the schools sampled, and thanks to its garden, it keeps food costs down. "We really try to eliminate waste," Reinman says. This explains why the students at Trinidad are served single apple slices and small portions unless they specifically request more. Reinman says the school has used at least 50 percent whole grains in its wheat products for several years, so the regulation change doesn't bother her.

Garden at Trinidad Elementary.

The traditional lunch faves are in evidence on Trinidad's monthly menu -- tacos, tuna melts -- but there are some modern, grown-up style additions. The Thai style vegan coconut-based corn chowder and homemade breads are adult and kid favorites both. The greenhouse, started two years ago with a lot of impetus from parents, affords a lot of organic produce. Other food comes from nearby sources: Arrington's Apples, as well as Clendenen's and Fieldbrook Valley Apple Farm, supply the apples. Along with the Eureka and Mckinleyville schools, the staff at Trinidad is talking with the Farm to Cafeteria Program to try to expand farmer-to-school direct supply; there's no date set for that, though, because of cost restrictions and distribution challenges, The farmers need to get fairly compensated, and the state's idea of  "fair compensation" is anybody's guess. Right now, Trinidad Elementary gets a heck of a lot from its gardens.

Arlene Lazio runs the big central kitchen that prepares food for 1,900 Eureka schoolchildren on several campuses.

Eureka City schools all get their food from one giant gleaming central kitchen off Broadway, which boasts huge walk-in ovens that have a "steam" function. They look like a Burning Man installation. "I'd love to have a signature bread," says Arlene Lazio, the kitchen's director. Lazio is an affable woman with warm dark eyes, graying hair, a competent, no-nonsense attitude and plenty of enthusiasm. She started working at the Eureka central kitchen in 2006. Her 18-person staff is responsible for feeding close to 1,900 students a day. They get their apples locally, and have been including whole grains, legumes and healthier meals since long before the new requirements were announced. Lazio says she has been in contact with the Farm to Cafeteria project (Fortuna, Mckinleyville and Trinidad schools say the same), and hopefully someday more local produce will consistently be on the menu; funding, as ever, is the primary challenge. The staff creates its menus via Nutrikids, a software program that lets the administrator plug in ingredients to design balanced meals.

Walking through the enormous kitchen is like walking through the dream of a busy kitchen goddess. Towering machines gleam, ovens roar and a giant dishwasher pummels huge cookware. The cooks are all female, and they work at stations responsible for salads, breads, entrees and packaging. Kristin Lenderman makes the entrees. At her station, a cauldron of Beefy Mac bubbles away, next to a vat of simmering pork roast that is destined for a bath in teriyaki sauce. Lenderman, swathed in hairnets, is a cheerful, light-eyed woman who takes pride in her work. She's just made a test batch of blueberry bagels, in the endless quest for "signature bread." It's all very clean and industrious. The menu looks appealing and kid-friendly; Pizza Burger, BBQ Pork Sliders, Roasted Herb Chicken. The sides are simple; seasonal fruit like apples, pears and kiwi, celery or carrot sticks, graham crackers, and always salad. Kids get desserts very rarely. Fries are out -- it's baked wedges.

Food is prepared and sealed for transport, so it can be taken from the central kitchen to school cafeterias around Eureka.

Alice Birney Elementary in Eureka gets its lunches from the Eureka central kitchen, and on a busy Wednesday in February, the lunch was tasty. The kids loved the sliced apples from Clendenen's, and the salad bar was good enough to eat, with fresh-tasting greens, tomatoes, carrots, orange slices and ranch or Italian dressing. The entree was a beefy chili with corn chips and shredded cheddar. Third-grader Stephanie Montezuma says she loves the salad bar and the whole wheat PB&J, "and especially watermelon," which the school has in season. Her classmate Neveah West loves the jicama. Jicama, in school lunches! In an effort to reduce waste, the school lets kids choose what they want, buffet style. Everything is a healthy selection, so no matter if they just pick vegetables and orange wedges, like some kids, or corn chips, salsa, raisins, carrots and milk, they can't load up on anything terribly unhealthy. The kids at Alice Birney, not surprisingly, all say pizza is their favorite lunch, but the pizza they have today is made with whole wheat crust and vegetable toppings. No more greasy bright red pepperoni on limp white bread -- remember that? Both disgusting and delicious? Overall, from an adult perspective, lunch was fine -- the chili was good, the chips weren't stale, the apples weren't brown and the salad was crisp. Unadventurous, nourishing food, with healthier ingredients and more fruit than the author recalls from her school days. Allowing the kids to pick only what they wanted appeared to cut down on waste; the trashcans weren't overflowing with uneaten food. Although one might think kids would sidestep the veggies given their druthers, the salad bar was popular.

Fruit is offered at Alice Birney Elementary.

At Jacoby Creek, the offerings were a little less appealing on a Tuesday that same week  -- the tortilla was cold, which gives it that raw dough consistency, kind of like chewing wood paste. The oranges were served whole, which looked like a challenge to the delicate digits of the under-7 set.  That being said, the school's menu (out of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District kitchens) looked par for the course; Whole grains? Check. Salad bar? Crispy and well-stocked. As in all the other lunchroom except Trinidad, kids' favorites included the homemade macaroni and cheese, and pizza -- both with whole grain flour! Kids palates are better adjusted these days to whole wheat, it appears. At Jacoby Creek, there are no steam tables to keep the food hot as the kids go through the line, so trays are made up in advance. The portions are small so that not too much is wasted, but more food ended up in the trash than with self-serve.

Overall, school lunches are much improved from an adult point of view. Frankly given the ludicrously small budget the government sees fit to give our schools, they're amazing. The smell of the black bean soup at Trinidad triggered a desire for the recipe, and the hot fresh whole grain breads were as good as any bakery. There's none of the (tasty) junk food there was 20 years ago, and the fruits and vegetables are fresher and more plentiful. Given that the local produce is a bit pricey for school budgets, why does only Trinidad grow so much of its own food? The answer is parental involvement and donations. So, people, go ahead, start a kale patch! Donate materials for a greenhouse! And write your local representative asking for increased school funding. After all, children have to eat.


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