Originally Published: January 7, 2011 9:56 p.m.
School lunches have changed drastically over the years. Decades ago, elementary-age students had two choices: Eat the one dish the cafeteria served, or bring your lunch from home.
High school students had more of a variety to choose from as they moved through the lunch line, but the choices centered on starchy food, sugary desserts and mystery meat.
Today, elementary students in the Prescott School District still have one meal choice, but they can select white, chocolate or strawberry milk.
At middle and high schools, students can choose from a wide variety of lunch items. Students have a rotating menu available with a variety of pizzas, ham, turkey or roast beef sandwiches, nachos with cheese sauce, hamburgers, chicken nuggets veggie burgers, hot dogs, taco salads or beef and bean burritos.
At Prescott High School, students have the same choices, plus a few more. Added to the rotating menu are tostadas, corn dogs, nachos with ground beef, cheese sandwiches, bean and cheese enchiladas, soft tacos and shrimp poppers.
PUSD Food Service Director Bob Toomer said he has created menus with nutritious food students like to eat.
"The key to nutrition is eating it," Toomer said.
PHS sophomore Brandi Zegler thinks school lunches are good, but not healthy.
"I would eat healthier if there was a better selection," Zegler said. Her favorite thing on the menu is the sub sandwich.
Fellow sophomore Halie Bishop thinks the food at school "is all pretty good. It depends on what you pick. I try to eat healthy here. I usually eat either soup or a sub."
Bishop thinks the health aspects of the meals "could be tweaked a little."
Since Prescott High School is not a closed campus, students with cars can leave the school grounds during their lunch hour.
PHS junior Nate Wright does not eat on campus because he doesn't like the food. Typically, he eats fast food and is not really interested in eating healthy food.
Wright and the other boys sitting at a table in the PHS cafeteria said they would consider eating at school if the quality was better and there was more variety, such as Chinese food.
The meals Toomer and his staff prepare all meet federal nutritional guidelines. Toomer said they follow a standard meal plan.
Each meal must contain 2 ounces of protein, 2 ounces of bread, 1/2 cup of fruit, 1/2 cup of vegetables and 8 ounces of milk.
Toomer said districts have the choice of following the standard meal pattern or a nutrient analysis plan. He has never been comfortable with the nutrient analysis plan, which offers an entrée and either one fruit or one vegetable.
"Most fruits and vegetables have 90 calories. We have to serve an average of 633 calories per meal," Toomer noted.
The food service department generates a report each month listing the calories, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, iron, calcium, vitamins, protein, carbohydrates and fats in every food item served to students.
A look at the kid-friendly macaroni and cheese lunch shows a total of 731 calories.
The 2/3-cup macaroni and cheese has 296 calories, 31 milligrams of cholesterol, 896 mg of sodium, .89 grams of fiber, 1.02 mg of iron, 482 mg of calcium, 19.6 g of protein, 27.44 g of carbohydrate, 12.18 g of total fat and 6.83 g of saturated fat.
Served with the mac-n-cheese are a roll, pears, raw cucumbers, ranch dressing and milk.
A lower-calorie meal is chicken tacos with corn, raw cucumbers, ranch dressing, grapes and milk. It has 436 calories.
One chicken taco has 132 calories, 23 mg of cholesterol, 126 mg of sodium, 1.49 g of fiber, .88 mg of iron, 97.5 mg of calcium, 9.5 g or protein, 10.2 g of carbohydrates, 6.1 g of total fat and 1.75 g of saturated fat.
While individual lunches might exceed the 633-calorie average, Toomer said it is the weekly average that counts.
"The key to the standards is that we have to offer it, but the students don't have to eat it. To be a nutritious meal, they have to eat their fruits and vegetables. If a high school student takes (only) a slice of pizza and milk, he or she is losing 100 calories of healthy food," Toomer explained.
PHS sophomore Ashley Morrison said she always eats the chicken sandwich. She said that healthy food choices are available if students want them.
The director said the high school and middle school lunches are prepared on-site.
"Once a week, we prepare an entrée in the district kitchen and deliver it to the elementary schools. The rest of the time, the meals come out of a box," Toomer noted.
The reason, he said, is the cost. The district gets all its food from Shamrock, through the Mohave Education Services Cooperative.
In addition to the daily entrée, Toomer offers elementary students a choice of three fruits and vegetables at the fruit and veggie bar. The fruits and vegetables are provided in 5 ounce cups. At the high school, students can have as many fruits and vegetables as they want.
PHS sophomore Jake Childers is on a low-carb diet. He gets his salad from the sub sandwich line.
"What we don't have and really need is a salad bar," Childers said.
Food service employees may prepare the meals at the school sites, but every day the district kitchen prepares fresh hoagie rolls and bakes cookies and brownies for the high school.
Toomer explained that at least one day a week the district kitchen prepares "comfort food" such as spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni and cheese or hot turkey sandwiches.
"It is a fallacy that school food is junk. It really is nutritious - if the students eat it," the director explained.
Toomer said the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act encourages getting food from local farmers and school gardens. But he said local farms are too expensive, school gardens are too small and crops ripen when school is out for the summer.
The reauthorization did provide an additional 6 cents to schools for school lunches.
Currently, the district receives $2.72 from the federal government for each free meal it provides to qualifying students, $2.32 for each reduced lunch and 26 cents for each paid lunch.
High school and middle school students not on the free and reduced meal program pay $2 per meal, and elementary school students pay $1.75.
The food service department has an annual budget of about $1.2 million. According to Toomer, half of the money comes from the federal government and half from parents. His department, he said, receives nothing from the money the district receives from the state.
The food service department is meant to be self-sustaining, he said.