The heat is on school food to improve.

Food service directors say they face obstacles to improving cafeteria meals, from outdated federal nutritional standards to tight funding.

Suggestions from experts for overcoming those obstacles range from setting higher prices to offering more fresh food and alternatives to high-fat products.

"School food has to get better," said Amie Hamlin, executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food. "How can we stand by and accept this?"


A much-discussed idea among school food directors nationwide is to allow all students to eat for free, known as "universal feeding."

The government should completely subsidize meals, said Carol Beebe, executive director of the New York School Nutrition Association, a group that represents 3,500 food service directors across the state.

"It eliminates all the competition," she said, and allows food service directors to focus on nutritious meals and "not solely on the basis of having to meet a bottom line."

Under such a plan, she said, students wouldn't be allowed to bring in food from outside the cafeteria or leave to have lunch elsewhere.

Darlene Smith, whose two daughters attend school in the Wantagh district, said she welcomes the idea of all children eating for free. But she'd like to see some exceptions that would allow students to bring lunch from home.

"I don't know how that would work for the kids with food allergies," she said. "What if they don't want the school lunch?"

Frank Harris, who for nearly 40 years was in charge of school food in Norwalk, Conn., until his retirement in 2006, said school food should be free, just like textbooks and transportation, because it's an essential part of education. "I have always felt that the feeding of all kids is all our responsibility," he said.

In Sweden, the government pays for school children to eat for free, said Janet Poppendieck, a Hunter College sociology professor who has been studying school food programs for five years.

While doing research in Sweden in 2005, she saw students were eating meals such as fish with vegetables and chicken curry with large salads.


Districts should offer variety and alternatives to meat and cheese, experts say.

"Look at other protein sources that are not just meat. Look at beans, legumes, soy," said Nancy Copperman, a registered dietitian and the director of public health initiatives for the North Shore- Long Island Jewish Health System.


Some school food directors worry about the amount of time students have to make their way through the line, make appropriate choices and eat their food. In Greenport, elementary students have 30 minutes. At Stimson Middle School in the South Huntington district, students have 22 minutes. In Longwood, students with advanced classes don't have lunch periods. In some districts, some students eat lunch as early as 9 a.m.


Some experts say cafeteria workers should be trained to properly handle raw food, allowing for more cooking from scratch and less reliance on processed products that simply are heated.

Julia Van Loon, a Port Washington mother of two who trained at the French Culinary Institute, is among those who would like schools to return to old-fashioned cooking. She recently was hired by the district to help improve its food.

She's introducing more from-scratch cooking gradually, so as to not overwhelm staff, she said. "There's no danger in working with tomatoes and making sauce," she said. "You can control sodium and use real garlic instead of powder."

But some cafeteria directors cite daunting challenges, including safety risks and higher labor costs.

"I don't want to deal with raw meat," said South Huntington food director Charlie McTiernan, who added there is virtually no scratch cooking in his cafeterias. "I have a big enough problem wondering if my produce is infected with E. coli. I try to reduce the liability."

At Jericho High and Middle School, one of the more popular meals is ziti made largely from scratch by Teresa Menduni, who was born in Italy. "I make my own tomato sauce," she said. "I crush tomatoes, I shred the mozzarella. I do it the way my mother taught me."

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