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The mad world of school lunches

YOU can lead a horse to water, said our elders, but you can't make it drink.

Well, it turns out the federal government can direct every school in the country to serve good nutritional choices, but the result is the same:

You can't make students eat it.

They revolt.

The Kanawha County school system has about 30,000 students. About half qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Washington gives the system about $8.8 million a year to provide meals to those students. And where federal money flows, federal guidelines apply.

Taste doesn't necessarily follow.

The feds and the state Department of Education have ordered changes: Heat-and-serve meals may be served only twice a week. Cooks must prepare meals from scratch the other three days.

There may be no more than 500 milligrams of sodium at breakfast and 1,100 milligrams at lunch, etc., etc., etc.

The result? Not good, according to the students and cooks who packed a special meeting of the Kanawha County Board of Education last week.

The Daily Mail's Amber Marra reported "intense disapproval" of the cafeteria food.

"We don't like it and we are willing to take a stand and tell you we don't like it,' " said Rachel Sizemore, a junior at Riverside High School.

Cooks said they aren't trained to cook huge quantities of food from scratch. They find it extremely difficult to cook large quantities of pork and chicken three times a week and maintain it at the proper temperature.

Furthermore, food shipments often don't include the ingredients called for in the recipes.

Take "Cluckers" for example. They're supposed to be scrambled eggs with peppers, onion and cheese in warm pita bread.

"The only problem, according to cook Toni Hibbs of Andrew Jackson Middle School, is that the pita bread hasn't come in yet," Marra wrote. "She has to substitute tortillas."

Kids are also getting pancakes and French toast sticks with no syrup, Salisbury steak with no gravy, and no ketchup anywhere.

 "Are you throwing a lot of this food out?" asked board member Pete Thaw.

"The response from the crowd was a resounding, 'Yes,' " Marra wrote.

The board is looking into it.

So, apparently, are a lot of other adults across the country.

A 2002 Department of Agriculture study found that what kids throw away most frequently are salad, vegetables and fruit.

New USDA guidelines don't appear to have changed that.

"Plate waste" has apparently long been a problem with school cafeterias, but the addition of healthier choices seems to have pushed it to epic proportions.

In February, the Chicago Tribune observed that one school discarded 334 pounds of uneaten food in one day. In another case, a careful audit reported disposal of nearly 60 pounds of unopened food.

"That included 66 oranges, 49 bananas, 21 cartons of milk, 25 unopened juices, 34 containers of peas and carrots, 15 plastic-covered containers of ravioli and more," the Tribune said.

"The slices of whole-wheat bread handed out with lunch turned into a whopping 26 pounds of wasted food."

But adults are determined.

The Tribune reported that the principal of one school banned bag lunches to keep kids from making unhealthy choices.

"At Little Village, most students take the meals served in the cafeteria or go hungry or both," the newspaper said.

"During a recent visit to the school, dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten. . . .

"At Claremont Academy Elementary School on the South Side, officials allow packed lunches but confiscate any snacks loaded with sugar or salt."

Sometimes they return it at the end of the day.

Just like the kids return what they don't like at the end of their lunch periods.

This installment of Washington Knows Best is going to be interesting. Settle in for news from the front.

In the meantime, make yourself a tortilla Clucker.

And watch the sodium.

Maurice is editorial page

editor of the Daily Mail. She may be reached at 348-4802 or hanna@dailymail.com.


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