Sloppy Joe sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and Tater Tots are still standard fare in most school lunchrooms. But school cafeteria cuisine is evolving. Cafeterias are swapping white bread for whole wheat and replacing oily salad dressings with low-fat offerings. Many schools have expanded their daily menus and added a la carte choices, providing students with more, and in many cases healthier, options than before.
As schools try to navigate a newly health-conscious world that heaps scorn on the buckets of lard and cans of mystery meat that once were mainstay ingredients of cafeteria cooking, they have to find clever ways to come up with nutritious meals that students will want to eat.
Every public school district in Massachusetts participates in the federal school lunch program, which means each receives a government subsidy in exchange for following certain dietary guidelines. No more than 30 percent of calories can come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat; lunches should provide one-third of the recommended daily allowances for protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.
The government leaves the rest up to the culinary whims of individual school districts. Unlike some states, Massachusetts does not currently have a statewide policy regulating vending machine snacks and a la carte items. As a result, the school cafeteria dining experience can vary widely from district to district. The Globe recently visited four area high school cafeterias to see what they had to offer.
WESTON HIGH SCHOOL Lunch starts early at Weston High. Every day at 10:15 a.m., the first wave of students swarm into the school's sun-filled cafeteria for their half-hour lunch period. All of the food is cooked in the kitchen, staffed by seven women wearing dark crimson, collared shirts and black aprons. There is a full soup and salad bar, a broad assortment of Celestial Seasonings tea (cinnamon apple, cranberry apple, mint medley, orange and spice, lemon), and a deli where sandwiches are made to order on a variety of breads (multigrain, oat bran, honey oatmeal, and marble rye, to name a few).
"It's totally different from what we had as kids," said Penny Theall, food service director for Weston schools. "Bottled water? We didn't sell that five, 10 years ago. Now we go through 50 cases a week."
Inside Weston High School's cafeteria, refrigerators are stocked with bottles of Naked Juice, premium organic juices, and smoothies. Next to the kitchen, a vending machine sells Aquafina bottled water and Snapple antioxidant water. The trend is toward lower-calorie drinks, Theall said.
Theall graduated from Weston High in 1971. She still lives in town ("hanging on, just getting by," she said) and marvels at how the town has changed over the years, from a rural suburb to an affluent community with a coveted ZIP code ("did you see the size of that house across the street?"). She has overseen the cafeteria operations in Weston for the past 14 years and knows deli meats like the best sommeliers know wine. She recalls years ago, when the kitchen would receive tubs of lard from the government.
"They really did have mystery meat," she said. "It came in a can, I remember opening one and thinking it smelled like dog food." Although she says the food donated by the government has improved in recent years, Theall avoids some ingredients.
"We use really upscale cold cuts . . . because I'm picky when it comes to cold cuts," she said, with a laugh. The students are "used to upscale food," she said.
Students pay $3 for a complete meal. The lunch menu changes every day, and can include a variety of dishes, such as quiche, Asian rice bowls, Normandy vegetables, Parker House rolls, and Cosmic Potatoes (baked potatoes cut into star and moon shapes). On Feb. 29, the featured dessert was "Leap Year cake" - a square piece of fluffy white cake topped with vanilla frosting - and the entree was baked salmon, wild rice, and warm spinach cooked in olive oil, salt, and pepper.
The most popular item that day was pizza and mozzarella sticks served with a pool of tangy red marinara sauce. "They're a big seller," she said.
EAST BOSTON HIGH SCHOOL East Boston High School serves the most affordable lunches in the state. The price of lunch in most Boston high schools is $2.25, but East Boston High is trying a new approach: letting students eat for free.
"We get no complaints," said Jennie Hall, the cafeteria manager at East Boston High School. "And not just because it's free, either."
Hall and her team of eight cafeteria attendants (don't call them lunch ladies) prepare and serve lunch to 800 students every day at a rapid-fire pace in the cafeteria, which was a gymnasium when the school was built in 1926. The students eat at long tables on the former basketball court. There are three lunch periods, each about 20 minutes long.
Hall said the menu is much different from when she attended East Boston High as a student in the 1970s. "Hot dogs," she said. "I just remember hot dogs and beans."
Today, students can choose from five lunches every day. They offer prepackaged Smuckers Uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Bagel pizza. Salisbury steak and brown rice. Turkey nuggets. French fries. Fresh tossed salads.
The school's cafeteria staff tries to provide students with home-style cooking. Hall and her team make the salad dressing from scratch, by combining oil, vinegar, sugar, oregano, and garlic. They slice pita bread into triangles, brush them with oil, sprinkle them with oregano and garlic, and bake them in the oven until they are crispy. They prepare other dishes, such as Dominican rice, that often reflect the diverse student body. Sixty percent of East Boston High's enrollment is Hispanic.
One cafeteria attendant, Delsi Garcia, came up with a recipe for soup that makes the most of several government-surplus food items: diced chicken, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, corn, and carrots. Garcia's creation was such a hit that the staff gave it a name: "East Boston's Famous . . . Delsi's (Delicious) Soup." They even made photocopies of her recipe, which have been distributed to other kitchens in the Boston public school system.
FOXBOROUGH HIGH SCHOOL The cafeteria at Foxborough High school is staffed by six women, all of whom live in town. The head cook and manager is Nancy Siracusa, a 25-year cafeteria veteran who takes her job seriously, prides herself on the cleanliness of the school kitchen, and doesn't mince her words. "School lunch gets a bad rap," she said, recalling the time she watched a "Dateline" exposé on NBC in which former host Stone Phillips visited school lunchrooms.
"They must've picked the worst ones they could find," said Siracusa, who said she wanted to write a letter to NBC and invite Phillips to tour Foxborough's spacious kitchen anytime.
Siracusa and her team cook and serve 600 lunches a day. The meals are served on foam plates and cost $2. They have "Taco Tuesdays" and "Pasta Wednesdays." When the Globe visited March 3, the featured entree consisted of chicken nuggets with dipping sauce, rice pilaf, fresh celery stalks, carrot sticks, broccoli, fresh fruit, and milk. In addition, the staff prepares eight to 10 different hot sandwiches every day including chicken, spicy chicken, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers. They also make miniature, personal pan pizzas.
"Years ago we would have one hot entree, and that was that."
These days, students want choice, she says. "The more choices they have, the more lunches we sell."
"We tend to make what they like," she said.
If those options aren't there, students will brown-bag it instead or make their voices heard in other ways. Last fall, breadsticks became a point of contention and hot topic of conversation in the locker-lined hallways at the school after the cafeteria stopped serving the white breadsticks and started making whole-wheat ones instead.
Students were not pleased, and they made it known to the staff immediately. Students started circulating petitions to bring the old breadsticks back. Some of them started a Facebook group devoted to the cause.
Their passionate response paid off. Now, both wheat and white breadsticks are offered. Other changes have been made, to provide students with healthier options: regular potato chips in the vending machine are being replaced with low-fat baked chips, low-sugar breakfast cereals are the norm, and students aren't allowed to sell candy in school for fund-raisers.
"They're going on a health craze," said Sarah MacMahon, a 16-year-old sophomore who buys her lunch there.
STONEHAM HIGH SCHOOL Stoneham High School's cafeteria is under new management. This year, Chartwells School Dining Services is running the cafeteria, which is used by 794 students. Chartwells, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., is an $8 billion private company that serves breakfast and lunch to more than 2.5 million schoolchildren each day.
Stoneham High's cafeteria also has a deli counter and full salad bar, along with a soup of the day from Au Bon Pain ($2.50), a Superpretzel heated display case filled with soft pretzels, and two frozen beverage machines that dispense blue raspberry and lime-flavored slushes. The director of dining services, Kerry Bryan, said the neon-colored slushes are made from 100 percent juice.
"We try to make it more like a food court," she said.
Lunches at Stoneham High cost $2.75. When the Globe visited March 5, the featured entree was roast turkey, whipped potatoes, corn, and gravy. Macaroni and cheese with beef, Tater Tots, and three different kinds of pizza - cheese, pepperoni, and vegetable - made with whole-grain crust were also served. The hot sandwich rack offered hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken patties, and spicy buffalo chicken sandwiches, all served on whole-wheat buns.
"Things have changed," said Gail Oliveira, northeast regional dietician for Chartwells. "Kids' tastes are more sophisticated."
And as far as prices of school lunch goes, "The value is still the best around," she said.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.