Sunday, October 02, 2005

The real world of school lunch

Loyal reader Ted Wilde writes: "This is a really good article on the realities of school lunch leadership by a highly creative food service director in a multicultural setting." From Matthew Pinzur at the Miami Herald:

The vast majority of the 4,100 students buy some sort of lunch. Between 1,200 and 1,300 stream through the main cafeteria. Most wait in line 10 to 15 minutes for daily specials such as Thursday's roast pork, beefaroni and rice with beans.

Hundreds more move along the salad bar, stocked daily with more than 20 fresh vegetables.

''Kids love a home-cooked meal, and lot of them don't get it at home,'' said Brookins, who often tweaks district-approved recipes to suit her students. One of her most popular inventions is special fried rice -- she adds ham and scrambled eggs to an arroz con pollo recipe and packages it in Chinese take-out containers.

''All we do is pizazz it up, jazz it up,'' said Brookins, 44, who has also worked for fast-food companies, casual restaurants and the companies that cater airline flights.

The rest of the students prefer to eat at one of the a-la-carte kiosks in a large, open-air courtyard outside the cafeteria. They primarily sell food from the school kitchen -- hoagies, chicken sandwiches, light salads -- but also bring in prepackaged snacks and nearly 300 pizzas from Papa John's, Dominoes and a local restaurant, Steve's

Those choices became popular in the late 1990s, when the school district closed high-school campuses and cut off students from their favorite fast-food runs. Bringing some of those foods onto campus was a stab at compromise.

''We can't tell them what they want,'' Brookins said.

A large share of Miami-Dade students are foreign-born, and their tastes are more worldly than the burgers and Sloppy Joes of a generation ago. Last week's menu included chicken fajitas, Mexican tacos and Jamaican empanadas in addition to hot dogs and deli sandwiches.

The insightful article describes a student population that is genuinely diverse in its eating goals. Some students value a healthy hot cooked meal that they miss in their home life, some have peanut allergies, some are vegetarian and desire more imaginative vegetables than the salad bar offers, and some press the cafeteria for more branded fast food -- "'They need to catch up with the times,'" said one.

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