It's 11:30 a.m. at Kennedy School, and Ms. Lovell's third-grade class files into the cafeteria.
The children chatter as they fill their trays with food. Today's entree choice is a beef taco with chips. Some take it; others opt for the Polish sausage or crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich offered as alternatives.
Then they head to a cart brimming with lettuce, tomatoes, baby carrots and shredded cheese. Clutching plastic tongs, they snatch up the veggies - some more enthusiastically than others.
By the time the children sit down to eat, no two trays look alike, and very few diners are completely satisfied with ALL the offerings.
But for food service personnel in Lawrence, who serve 6,000 lunches a day on a budget of $4.3 million, it's a balancing act.
"We have to plan menus so that they are healthy and meet government guidelines. We have to stay within a budget," says Sharon Thibodeau, school district supervisor of food services. "It also has to be something that can either be prepared in the schools or easily transported so that it still looks nice for the kids so they want to eat it."
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program started in 1946, its main goal was to fill children's bellies so they could concentrate in class, maximizing their learning potential. But with childhood obesity on the rise, added emphasis has been placed on offering low-fat, low-cholesterol options.
In Lawrence, that means putting out more fresh fruits and vegetables, skim and 2 percent milk instead of whole milk, rolls without butter, hamburger that has been drained and rinsed, chips that are baked instead of fried and far fewer desserts.
But the old standbys are still there: pizza, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti. And unlike when their parents were in school, today's youngsters serve themselves. So despite planners' best efforts to put together a balanced menu, students ultimately decide what they eat.
"(Parents might) think we're policing what their children are choosing, and that's not it," says Paula Murrish, director of food services. "We're not going to put peas on their tray. If THEY put them on, then they're more likely to eat them."
That self-serve philosophy is working well at Kennedy School, says kitchen manager Sharon Mitchell.
"The kids today are really making good choices," she says. "They love carrots, onions and broccoli. I tell you what, if you put ranch dressing out, that's the key."
The district serves only low-fat ranch.
School lunches must meet nutrition guidelines set by the USDA and administered by the Kansas State Department of Education. Lunch should account for one-third and breakfast one-fourth of the official Recommended Dietary Allowances for children.
Most weeks, Lawrence schools are meeting or exceeding those standards, according to analysis provided to the Journal-World by the district.
The values aren't broken down for each item, but rather are weighted based on what students actually select. The nutrients are then averaged for the entire menu per day and week. Weekly averages are printed on the menus that go home with children.
The weighted system, which is mandated throughout Kansas, provides a more accurate picture for USDA reporting, said Jodi Mackey, director of child nutrition and wellness for KSDE.
"Anybody can plan a healthy menu, but if the kids don't take the food, it does no good at all," she says. "It's a much more accurate picture of the food that the kids are eating. When the guidelines for school meals changed back in 1995, we implemented this approach, and most other states did not."
Still, the method doesn't allow parents to monitor the exact nutritional value of what their children are eating each day. That's one reason it's important for parents to talk to their children about making healthy choices in the cafeteria, Murrish said.
"First of all, I think (parents) need to know what their children are choosing, and then if they have questions as to what they could choose, then they either need to talk with the manager in their building or call our office," she says. "Some parents have a lot of control and want a lot of control. And then we have parents who just say, 'I want my child to eat. I want full value for my dollar.'"
Rhonda Smith has been among the most involved parents. Her children attend Kennedy School, and last year she ate lunch in the cafeteria every day with her 8-year-old daughter, Jazmen, who has Type 1 diabetes. She also has an 11-year-old son, Jared, who says his favorite school meals are chicken nuggets and nachos.
Smith said she tried to set an example at home so her kids would make smart choices at school, especially in light of what she calls an epidemic of childhood diabetes and other health problems.
"I serve everything in my house, as much as I can, low-fat," she said. "That is very vital to me, and they're not allowed to get their hands on junk food."
She said the school did an OK job providing balanced meals, but she wishes there was more nutrition education for students and better alternatives for children with special dietary needs, such as her daughter.
"If they have apple sauce with sugar, Jazzy gets an apple," she says. "If the next day they get chocolate cake, Jazzy gets an apple."
So many choices
Elementary schools offer four entree choices daily.
The selection broadens as students get older. Junior highs offer nine entrees, and high schools offer as many as 16. These students also can eat hamburgers and pizza every day, if they choose. Though food services doesn't serve soda, fried chips or candy bars, high school students can buy such fare through student organizations at their schools. High school students also can leave school during lunch to eat out or at home.
When it comes down to it, Murrish says, schools have to offer food that children will actually eat. Many students are accustomed to processed, prepackaged foods at home, and planners have to compete with what's popular at grocery stores and restaurants, she said.
"They want it to look like home," she says. "It's the same with the Thanksgiving meal. You'd think we were doing this big treat, and it's great for staff members. But as for students, we used to not offer a choice against it because of all the work, and those were the lowest counts of the year. They wanted their choice. They wanted recognizable items that they would have at home."
That's not to say that children are avoiding healthy food.
"It's amazing the tons, literally, of fresh fruits and vegetables the kids eat every year," food services supervisor Thibodeau says. "They give them the baby carrots, and they eat them. And it's amazing how many of them like cauliflower and sliced cucumbers.
"Actually, the kids do really well, and once they see their peers doing it, they're going to eat it."
- On the street: What was your favorite school lunch?
- Lawrence school district elementary lunch menu
- System allows parents to see what children choose for lunch (05-30-05)
- Packing a safe, healthy school lunch takes planning (09-18-02)
- Lawrence Public Schools food services
- School Nutrition Assn.
- National School Lunch Program