Nan Austin

Fresh produce springs up in cafeterias, but will beige blobs be back?

At Central Valley High in Ceres, kids line up for salads, sectioned fruits, low-calorie meat pizzas and low-sodium nachos. Cafe-like offerings and lots of choices have raised cafeteria lunch appeal while a new wave of requirements challenged menu makers’ creativity, requirements now under fire as Republicans try to roll back regulations.

The push for fresh produce came with 2012 federal standards distinctly identified with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was the legislation behind the new standards, a law identified by the GOP as ripe for repeal before this school year ends.

National school lunch rules are literally first on the list of target regulations in a report by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., called First 100 Days: Rules, Regulations and Executive Orders to Examine, Revoke and Issue.

But while some easing of restrictions would be welcome, school nutritionists say, there seems to be no appetite locally for going back to the cafeteria offerings of yesteryear.

Many recall the mystery-meat-under-gravy meals of our youth. That single item plop on the plate, at least at my school, ended up stuffed into emptied milk cartons to escape cafeteria staff scrutiny of what was thrown away.

“It’s hard to break out of that years ago stereotype. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of what we offer now,” said Rhonda Whitehead, director of the Ceres Unified nutrition program. Ceres parents do, however, thanks to a district program that has parents and students taste test any new offerings.

The low-salt dictum is the toughest, she said. School programs use lemon or no-salt seasonings to spice up their offerings to kids used to high salt, high fat, high sugar diets.

“You have to get real creative to get the most flavor out of your food,” Whitehead said. “We’ve been doing it for two or three years now. We’re always trying to change it up.”

Teens at Central Valley High, who have been eating school lunches since before the rules changed, said even sans salt, today’s meals are better.

“Back then you had more regular food. Now there’s variety,” said junior Gagandeep Singh after loading up a bowl at the salad bar Tuesday. He has salad twice a week or so, he said.

“Here, you have more choices,” said sophomore Teofilo Diaz, as he dug into teriyaki chicken, one of nine entrees on that day’s menu at all Ceres high schools and junior highs.

“Kids love our salad bar,” said Georgiana Hasten, manager of the Central Valley cafeteria staff. Lunches she first handed out were so, so different she said. “You never had fresh fruits and veggies like this 28 years ago.”

Another plus for the student-piled salad – very little is tossed out.

Around 1,100 teens press through lunch lines in 15-20 minutes at Central Valley High. Five lines speed through hot lunch buffets with grab and go bags of pre-cut fruit, a selection of low-fat milk, and warmers filled with boxed meals – hamburgers, chicken strips, chicken taquitos, teriyaki chicken and nachos were the choices Tuesday. Students in another line grab a base of lettuce and popcorn chicken and pile on salad bar veggies. Sandwich bar extras add onto four deli options on a croissant or french roll in another line. Outside, two types of pizza are available at a cafeteria window.

At the end of each line is a keypad where kids punch in a number to pay – $2.75 for the fewer than 1 in 5 Ceres students not qualified for a free lunch under federal income limits. If a student’s online account comes up short, however, they still eat, Whitehead said.

Ceres also provides free breakfast open to all students, available before school and at morning break, and a free supper for anyone under 18 at many of its campuses. Each of those meals must meet strict dietary guidelines, just like school lunches.

They all must offer fruits and vegetables, which at Central Valley often include food grown in the campus greenhouses or the 6-acre school farm by ag classes. On Tuesday, it was the broccoli at the salad bar. Small crops of lettuce come from the school’s hydroponic green house. FFA students grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, peaches, plums and apricots.

The farm’s multi-colored, not entirely straight and perfect, fresh carrots caused a stir when they appeared in the salad bar, Whitehead said.

In August and September, around 8 tons of grapes at the farm will ripen and be bought by the school lunch program, providing $12,000-$15,000 the school uses to hire high school students to keep the farm and greenhouses running year round, said ag teacher Ken Moncrief. Plant production classes grow the produce. Food science students create jams, dried fruit and other produce products.

The full-circle farm to fork plan fits with the former first lady’s vision for schools as a base camp for healthier lives. The augmented funding she also campaigned for may well disappear alongside the mandates for fruits and veggies now on the chopping block.

Under those nutritional standards adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture school lunch program in 2012, all foods sold in schools – in vending machines as well as lunches – are limited to strict fat, sugar, salt and calorie guidelines.

There are exemptions for peanut butter and fruit juices, but cheese has to be low-fat and grains have to be mostly whole. Vegetables and fruits must be offered as meal choices – and ketchup does not count as a vegetable.

Under those regulations, the sodium standard will lower again next year, Whitehead said, adding she would not mind that one easing up.

“We could be a little bit more free to work with recipes,” she said. “Lower sodium is good, but that means the potassium is out, too. It is a balance.”

Plus, no getting around it, salted food tastes better.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin