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For the love of lunch

POSTED January 18, 2011 9:31 p.m.

Unlike most people I’ve met over the years, I have fond memories of eating lunch in my elementary, junior high and high school cafeterias.

No, I do not have a tray fetish — at home, my meals are served on regular dishes — and I have no special desire to drink milk from miniature cartons, I just remember that when the clock struck 11:21 a.m. or 12:42 p.m. (school lunch times are never quite on the hour for some reason) there would be delicious, hot food waiting in my school cafeteria.

The food at Hamilton Heights — my alma mater located in Cicero, Ind. — was actually cooked fresh every day on each campus. Cafeteria employees would then dish out a serving from large pots of steaming hot goodness. This is totally different from how lunch is prepared and served at the Turlock Unified School District.

In Turlock, all elementary school lunches are prepared in one central kitchen. The food is vacuum-packed into plastic disposable containers and delivered to each campus. The food containers are then stacked on tables and kids move down the line, grabbing boxes.

I used to work at a two local school sites and have visited many more as a reporter. At no time did I ever have the desire to sit down with the students and share their lunch. I’m sorry local lunch ladies and gentlemen — including my totally rockin’ mother-in-law Pam Hacker —your culinary skills are top notch, you just don’t have much to work with.

I don’t really blame the school administrators either. Serving hundreds of hungry kids every weekday on the money available after the state guts education funding is a difficult task, to say the least. But something has got to change.

And change is now on its way, thanks to a proposal from the USDA for upgrades to nutritional standards for school meals.

The proposed changes include increasing the amount and variety of vegetables at lunch; offering more whole-grain rich foods; limiting fluid milk choices to fat-free (unflavored or flavored); establishing minimum and maximum calorie levels for each age/grade  group; limiting saturated fat; seeking  gradual but major reductions in the sodium content; and minimizing  trans fat. (For more information on proposed changes, see article titled "Proposed upgrade to school meals adds fruits, vegetables and subtracts sodium, calories.")

You may be thinking that “nutritional” does not really translate into good, but it is definitely a start. The example “before” and “after” proposed nutritional changes lunch menus made up by the USDA look promising as a change for the better.

For example, one of the USDA’s “before” lunches includes pizza sticks (3.8 ounces) with marinara sauce (1.4 cup), banana, raisins (1 ounce) and whole milk. The “after” lunch features a chef salad — 1 cup romaine, 5 ounces of low-fat mozzarella, 1.5 ounces of grilled chicken, low-fat Ranch dressing (1.5 ounces) — with whole wheat soft pretzel (2.5 ounces), cooked corn (1/2 cup), raw baby carrots (1/4 cup), banana and skim chocolate milk.

While everyone loves pizza, a chef salad with a soft pretzel and fruits and vegetables is more filling — and healthier, of course.

Lowering the sodium and calorie counts for lunches means schools will have to serve more fresh foods and less processed and canned foodstuffs. Believe it or not, when you offer children fresh food regularly they will eventually prefer it to junk food. I have seen this work for my daughter and countless friends who limited — or banned altogether — junk food in their homes.

Living in one of the nation’s most fertile agricultural lands should translate into fresher, healthier and tastier meals for all Central Valley residents, and especially our children.

It is my hope that Turlock’s children of today will grow up to also have fond memories of school lunches and pass that nutritional background on to their families.

To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail khacker@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.

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