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Mystery meat no longer today's special

December 04, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — While school lunches have long been the butt of jokes and the subject of some adults' less-than-fond childhood memories, today's school lunches aren't that bad at all.

Gone are the days of menacing lunch ladies ladling out heaps of gruel and mystery meat. Today you're more likely to see cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets, two of the most popular entrees in Brawley's public schools, according to Molly Diaz, Brawley Union High School District assistant food services director.

Diaz and food services Director Dee Jones are part of a 15-member staff that plans and prepares the school lunches for both the high school and Brawley Elementary School District.

Deciding what goes on the menu is based on several factors, including nutrition and popularity.

The state sets standards regarding things like calories and amounts of fat in meals. The food services staff puts together food combinations and analyzes them for nutritional value. If they pass, they can be served to students.

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The staff also considers student preference when putting an item on the menu, Diaz said.

In one way of finding new items, food services staff members attend conferences and food shows to sample different products targeted at schools, Diaz said.

Diaz said the department tries out new items once or twice a month. Depending on student reaction, it may become a regular item. If most of the product ends up in the trash can, Diaz and the others know to look for something else.

"Kids and adults look at food differently," Diaz said. What may sound good to a grown-up may not be a hit with kids.

Diaz admits that it can be disappointing sometimes when a product she thinks kids really will like turns out to be a dud.

Menus are usually planned two to four weeks in advance, allowing enough time to order products and make changes, Diaz said.

When it comes time to actually prepare the meals, it takes much less work now than in the past, Diaz said.

"We're not doing as much scratch cooking," she said. "Much more of the items are pre-packaged."

Eight years ago when Diaz began working in the food services department, staff members were still making their own pizza. Now, they order it from Domino's Pizza.

Before, staff had to wash every head of lettuce and cut them all up for salad. Now, all that work is done by the vendor before the lettuce ever arrives.

"It's less labor-intensive," Diaz said of the difference.

And it's satisfying.

"It's an interesting business," Diaz said.

Diaz also said it is rewarding knowledge that she helps provide nutritious meals to children, some of whom may not eat so well at home.

"If they eat (their lunch), they'll get a good meal. They don't always get that at home," Diaz said.

What's more, the schools can provide some items kids love but also may not eat much at home, like the aforementioned pizza.

"They look forward to it," she said.

Jesse Ruelas and Marteshia Adams, both 5-year-old kindergartners at Brawley's Phil Swing School, agree that pizza is one of their favorite things to eat at school.

When asked why, Jesse's answer was simple, if not somewhat vague: "Because," he said.

Marteshia was more specific.

"'Cause it's good," she said, especially the crust.

Proving wrong the popular belief that kids don't like vegetables, Marteshia also said she likes the salads served at her school, though she admitted the dressing is her favorite part.

>> Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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