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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 1, 2003

$1 lunches no bargain for students

 •  Castle raises money for lunch benches
 •  How parents can get involved
 •  Chart (opens in new window): What're you having? A school lunch survey

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's lunchtime at Roosevelt High School, and the menu offers a choice of fried saimin noodles with luncheon meat or corn dogs.

Roosevelt High School ninth-grader Chris Smits eats lunch while hanging with his friends in the hallway outside the cafeteria. For a variety of reasons, thousands of students are choosing not to eat school lunch at all.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I picked the corn dog because the line was shorter," said junior Annie Nguyen, 16. "The saimin is greasy-looking, and it has that plastic-looking Spam."

On this same day in late May at Maui's Baldwin High School, students were choosing between pizza, somen salad or a "wiki" meal of Italian dippers — breadsticks with marinara sauce.

The somen salad is usually a sell-out, but reviews were mixed for the cheese-and-beef pizza.

"We ain't talking about Tony Roma's here. We're talking about school food," said Lyndsey Kahuhu, a 15-year-old freshman.

Across the state, thousands of other high school students were choosing not to eat school lunch at all — even though it's a bargain at $1 a plate.

Only half the students at Roosevelt and Baldwin line up for school lunch on an average day; at Hilo High School, it's a meager 34 percent.

"I don't know if they are starving all day or what they're doing," said Marcy Holokai, school food service manager at Baldwin. "My job is to feed the kids, to make sure they have a good meal. It bothers me that they don't come."

By comparison, school lunch participation is 90 percent or better at four elementary schools surveyed by The Advertiser.

The numbers don't account for absences or those who bring food from home.

With studies showing a link between nutrition and school performance, and with Hawai'i's high rate of obesity in children — estimated at 26 percent in a study of public school students versus the national average of 15 percent — school meals would appear to play an important role in a student's educational and physical development.

Between 140,000 and 150,000 lunches are served daily in the state's public schools, said Gene Kaneshiro, director of the Department of Education's School Food Services Branch.

Hawai'i participates in the National School Lunch Program, receiving federal subsidies in exchange for serving lunches that meet federal nutritional requirements and for providing free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

No more than 30 percent of the calories in a school lunch can come from fat. Meals also must contain certain levels of vitamins A and C, protein, calcium, iron and other nutrients.

All of the school food service managers at 12 public schools surveyed by The Advertiser were satisfied with the nutritional quality of the lunches they provide.

The elementary school managers worried more about getting children to eat what they are served, while secondary school managers fretted over just getting students into the cafeteria.

At Waiakea Intermediate School in Hilo, there were plenty of open seats and no long lines in the cafeteria on a recent day when meat loaf and soft tacos were on the menu. Hundreds of students spent the lunch period outside, playing Hacky Sack or chatting with friends.

"It's usually empty because a lot of kids, they don't have to eat," said Marcus Boucher, 11. "They just go wander around. They bring chips in their bag, stuff like that. I do that."

Some prefer to socialize

Spam Musubi is among the dishes students can buy at Kapolei High School, one of O'ahu's newest schools.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

School and health officials and students said there are many reasons why students at secondary schools aren't lining up for school lunch that have nothing to do with food quality.

Some students prefer to use lunchtime to socialize or to participate in intramural sports or club meetings. Others don't eat so they can avoid a trip to unclean or unsafe bathrooms later in the day.

Girls, in particular, see skipping meals as a way to lose weight. This is not a good idea, said Jodi Leslie, a registered dietitian with the state Department of Health.

Teenagers need increased calories, protein, calcium, iron and other nutrients and vitamins, she said, and hunger affects concentration, learning and energy levels.

Students may think they're cutting calories, she said, but what often happens is that they'll stuff themselves later with junk food at home or at fast-food restaurants.

School lunch also is seen as a hassle by students who face long lines and crowded cafeterias.

"A lot of them would rather just not bother. 'I can go around the corner and get something after school,'" said Dean Masutomi, food service manager at Hilo High School.

Masutomi said he's caught in a Catch-22: He could ease the long lines and sell more meals if he could open a third serving line. But he can't open a third serving line unless he sells more meals to justify more staffing.

The Hilo manager also suspects some students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches may be ashamed to go to the cafeteria. Even though some schools provide lunch tickets or debit cards that don't indicate whether a student is paying full price or not, "everybody knows," he said.

His biggest complaint, however, is the sale of "noncompetitive" food that can lure students away from more nutritious school lunches.

A Board of Education rule banning the sale of foods other than those served by the school is largely ignored at many campuses, Masutomi said. Administrators turn a blind eye to the situation because the sale of candy, musubi and other food is used to raise money for athletic teams and school clubs, he said.

The competition for teenage appetites is fierce outside of school as well, Leslie noted.

"We're in a society where you can buy a Caesar salad at McDonald's. At school, they're getting shredded lettuce. You can't compare it," she said.

Castle High School food service manager Ernie Cabinte said students' changing tastes don't make meal planning any easier. "Last year the students wanted more sandwiches. This year the students want more rice and gravy," he said.

Kapolei participation high

Ha'iku Elementary School food service manager John Cadman, a former chef at the Four Seasons in Wailea, prepares soft tacos with beans and rice. Students also can choose a beef version.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the campus with the highest rate of lunch participation among the high schools surveyed — Kapolei High School — is Hawai'i's newest public high school.

Sixty-seven percent of the school's 1,350 students eat school lunch.

Aside from school food service manager Alan Ahn's innovative menu that includes a "California-style chicken pizza" and scrumptious fried chicken, students like the convenience of being able to pick up meals at a separate kiosk that was included in the design of the school.

"When the cafeteria is crowded, I'll go there," said 17-year-old junior Ann Guillermo. "There's always something there I can eat."

Forty percent of the 900 meals served daily at Kapolei High School are sold at the kiosk, and Ahn plans to open a second one in the fall.

Kaneshiro at the School Food Services Branch told Baldwin High School students studying the problem of low lunch counts that offering additional meal distribution points is an easy way to boost lunch sales, because altering the menus would raise a series of issues ranging from procurement laws and the need for nutritional analysis to union agreements.

Public schools follow a five-week menu cycle devised by a central committee of school food service managers. At the school level, managers can adapt the meals to student tastes. If the menu calls for chicken patty, it can be served with rice and gravy, on a bun or with lemon sauce, for example.

In addition to the regular menu, most secondary schools offer a "wiki" (fast) meal of hot dogs, tacos, sandwiches or other items during the midmorning recess and at lunch.

Also available to school food service managers is an Ola Pono (Good Health) menu featuring fruit salad and cottage cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and meatless recipes for chili, lasagna and burritos — but so far there hasn't been much demand for it, according to Kaneshiro.

"We find it very hard to go away from things like pizza and nachos with cheese. It's really hard to try to sell vegetarian lasagna," he said. "There's a huge discussion in my office about how we can find ways to make things more palatable and healthy. It can be a contradiction."

Financial risk

James Mares and Charlotte Schoder, both 14, play music together during their lunch break near the kiosk at Kapolei High School. Some students skip lunch at school because of long lines in the cafeteria.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

A report on school lunches released in May by the U.S. General Accounting Office notes the dilemma facing school food service managers across the country: If they serve healthier foods, they risk students buying fewer meals and a loss in revenue and staffing.

To minimize that risk, the GAO said that some schools are modifying popular recipes to lower the fat and sodium content — such as using low-fat cheese on pizza — and conducting taste testing before adding new choices.

Hawai'i schools have taken steps to reduce the fat content of meals. Whole milk was once uniformly served, but now 2 percent fat and 1 percent chocolate milk are offered, and some schools offer ice water and calcium-fortified orange juice in addition to milk.

Turkey has replaced beef in certain recipes, but to kick up the flavor, some cooks may add salt or fat, offsetting some of the health benefits of using the leaner meat, Kaneshiro said.

"Sometimes you can't win," he said.

The Health Department is working with the DOE on a training program to teach school food service managers, many of whom are not dietitians, about nutrition and ways to prepare healthful and tasty meals. Kaneshiro said the training should begin next year.

School food service manager Mike Akama of Wilcox Elementary in Lihu'e is proud that his school uses a higher proportion of nonfat milk than other Kaua'i schools. He visits classrooms to discuss the differences between milk choices, and every year invites second-graders to a cafeteria orientation to explain how the kitchen works and to talk about nutrition.

Akama strives to serve lower-fat meals by braising ground beef and draining the grease, and he removes the skin from chicken thighs.

"We may be the only school that doesn't serve chicken thighs with the skin. I don't like fat. I try to make meals as lean as possible."

Students at Ha'iku Elementary on Maui are offered a meatless entree in addition to the regular menu, and the school has a salad bar.

The same day Roosevelt students were deciding between corn dogs and fried noodles, Ha'iku second-grader Travis Andrade chose a soft taco with a bean, rice and cheese filling over a ground-beef version.

Ha'iku kindergartner Joshua Ajifu helps himself to some celery sticks, among the healthier items on the school's lunch menu.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

"It's really, really good, but I don't like the lettuce," Andrade said, picking out the green bits.

School food service manager John Cadman, a former chef at the Four Seasons resort in Wailea who helped developed the Ola Pono menu, said the bottom line is that school lunches are "market-driven."

Even with the emphasis on healthy eating, only about 20 percent to 30 percent of Ha'iku students opt for the meatless entrees. The most popular meals remain pizza, nachos and chicken nuggets, Cadman said.

"I can't change their eating habits. I can only try to offer as many healthy options as the customers want and request," he said.

Changes in federal School Lunch Program policies that required cafeterias to dish up an entire meal on a plate now allow for a "serve vs. offer" option that opened the door to salad bars and helped reduce waste.

It's a relatively new lunch development at Wai'alae Elementary, where school food service manager Mae Nakada said she uses the salad bar to introduce different food to students. On a recent day the selection was dried cranberries, greens, pineapple chunks and pickles.

"The salad bar helps them eat healthier," Nakada said. "It gives the children a choice and they feel mature and grown up to put food on their own plate."

Pacita Cabbab, food service manager at Kahuku High and Intermediate School for 47 years, takes pride in her expanded salad bar, which includes an assortment of raw veggies, tossed salad, fruit and three choices of dressing.

"The salad bar has done wonders because when we put vegetables and fruits on the plate, the kids didn't eat it. But when I put it on the bar, you'd be surprised how much vegetables they eat," she said.

Salads have become so popular at King Intermediate that school food service manager Marjorie Morishige is thinking of providing vegetable and fruit salad plates as a meal option.

Contributing to this report were staff writers Eloise Aguiar, Kevin Dayton, James Gonser, Timothy Hurley, Suzanne Roig, Jan TenBruggencate and Catherine Toth.

• • •

Get involved

Ten things parents can do to ensure that school meals are healthful, nutritious and appealing.

1. Eat breakfast or lunch at school with your children. See what the meals are like. Notice the atmosphere. If you don't like what you see, do something.

2. Make your opinions heard. Talk to other parents. Work with your PTA and school board to support healthful school meals.

3. Go to the principal. Discuss the importance of good nutrition and physical activity. Suggest programs. Most importantly, follow through.

4. Get a weekly menu of school meals. Ask for the nutrition facts so you can be sure the menu meets the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

5. Visit the school cafeteria. Get to know the staff. Let them know you value their services and appreciate good daily nutrition for your child.

6. Show your children and their friends where healthy food comes from. Help your school start an edible landscape with a garden of goodies like fruits, vegetables and herbs.

7. Volunteer to organize a classroom tasting party to introduce and encourage nutritious new foods the children may never have tried.

8. Get involved. Form a parent advisory committee for school meals.

9. Make sure your children appreciate how healthful breakfasts and lunches serve their minds as well as their bodies.

10. Listen to what your children are learning at school about good nutrition. You can help them put their knowledge to work at home, too.