More than just money
Jeffrey Chance stood at a table in the Shaw Avenue Elementary cafeteria, gobbling up his chicken sandwich, Hershey's chocolate milk and Dutch apple pie. It wasn't a meal served in the Valley Stream school's cafeteria. It was from Burger King, delivered by his mom.
"I don't like school cafeteria food," said Jeffrey, a sixth-grader last school year.
Kids who crave junk food are one of the most potent cultural forces buffeting Long Island school food service directors trying to make school lunches healthier.Others include the powerful marketing machine behind the nation's biggest fast food players; Long Islanders' distinctly regional preferences for the often unhealthy foods served up by hundreds of local pizzerias and delis; and bad eating habits of harried suburban families who share home-cooked meals less frequently than in the past.
School food directors say they also contend with competition from within: soda in school vending machines, candy at school stores, brownies from bake sales and classroom parties.
"We can't just go out there and put a piece of tofu and broccoli on a plate and say, 'This is the healthiest meal you're going to eat,'" said Carol Beebe, executive director of New York School Nutrition Association. "Especially if they're not eating tofu and broccoli at home. But it doesn't mean we don't try."
Fast food Island BIG NUMBERS: $11.26B: U.S. food, beverage, candy and restaurant ads in 2004 $9.55M: Ads for federal Five-A-Day campaign promoting fruits and vegetables
McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Taco Bell franchises line the streets of Long Island -- more than two for every one of Long Island's 110 districts with a school lunch program.
Alluring images of crispy fries and juicy burgers flood magazines and television. Burger King alone spent $364 million in U.S. advertising in 2007, according to Advertising Age.
Even when commercials aren't targeted to kids, they're seeing the ads anyway, said Chuck McMellon, a Hofstra University marketing professor. Junk food is often marketed with cartoon characters, he said, and commercials are replete with catchy jingles.
"The flip side of it is ... we rarely see an ad for a banana," he said. "Almost all the good foods aren't promoted at all." And when they are, the advertising tends to be directed at adults, McMellon said.
Kim Rozzano, a junior at East Meadow High School, said fast food is so popular among her classmates that "if they had Taco Bell in school, the school would be rich. Taco Bell for our school is the 'it' food. Kids want to go there all the time. On a Friday night, the tables are packed."
In recent years, fast food companies have offered salads and other healthier alternatives to burgers and fries. "If I go to McDonald's, I eat the apple walnut salad," said Karley Bourke, a Southampton Intermediate seventh-grader. "Trans fats are poisonous and they can kill you."
For kids, a matter of taste
On a day off from school, Craig Baer, a senior at Rocky Point High School, sat down to lunch last winter at the Smith Haven Mall food court. He munched on two orders of Wendy's chicken nuggets, a hamburger and fries.
His biggest complaint about school food is that it's "too healthy." He bypasses the standard meal of the day and orders a spicy chicken sandwich daily, and would like to see Papa John's pizza served more often than Mondays and Wednesdays.
Adriana Garcia, a West Hempstead mom who said she tries her best to only buy organic food, said that no matter what she serves, her children still crave junk food. She says her children, 5 and 7, are drawn to "crunch."
"If it's mushy like beans and lentils, to them that's gross," she said. And they don't like leafy greens such as collards, she said.Teenage girls' fears of gaining weight also can complicate the effort to make lunch healthier.
"We eat bagels every day," said Felicia Richard, of Jericho High School, as she sat with three other girls who picked at cinnamon raisin bagels.Each said she spends about $5 per day on a bagel, a can of iced tea and snacks such as Special K cereal bars or Pop Tarts. "It's a 400-calorie Pop Tart," pointed out Niki Yeganeh. She said she pays careful attention to calories: "I think about how hungry I am and how much fat it has and how big I'll get."Blake Novick said she believed the bagel was less fattening than the baked ziti offered that day. "The hot meal is more like comfort food," she said. "You only eat it when you're depressed."
Rocky Point food service director Elena Lynch-Dobert said it often feels like teenagers don't want healthy food. "We can offer it to them, but they still have to take it," she said. "The high school level is difficult to change."
Regional favorites endure Nearly 1,300 delis and 900 pizzerias dot LI -- almost 20 for every school district with a school lunch program.
When Adrianne Goldenbaum arrived on Long Island nearly 30 years ago from Florida, she noticed that meatball heroes were popular here, while corn dogs were a hit in Broward County.
"In this community, anything with red sauce is a big seller," said Goldenbaum, school lunch director for the West Babylon school district. Those big sellers include items such as pizza and chicken parmigiana.
Such foods -- often full of fatty cheeses and salty meats -- are sold at local pizzerias and delis, beloved Long Island institutions rooted in New York neighborhoods that gave birth to many Long Islanders, their parents, or their grandparents.
Many local schools also offer Boar's Head deli meat, hoping the familiarity will increase cafeteria dining. A company spokeswoman said more than 300 Boar's Head products, including some lower-sodium items, are available on Long Island -- more than anywhere in the country.
Because the brand was founded in Brooklyn in 1905, "Generations of people in New York and on Long Island grew up eating Boar's Head," said RuthAnn LaMore.But Long Island's tastes are changing, Goldenbaum notices, as more diverse immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Russia build lives here.
Edwin Cordero of Brentwood High School, a junior and recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he'd like to see more rice served in the cafeteria because that's what he eats a lot of at home. Brentwood has occasionally served plantains, rice and beans, and collard greens to high school students, food service director Deborah Credidio said.
Habits from harried homes Both parents work in more than 159,000 LI households with children 17 and under -- about 60 percent, the census says.
Just as cooking from scratch once was the norm in American homes, so it was in school cafeterias. But as eating habits have changed, so has school food. What's more, food service directors who need their cafeterias to break even say they model fast food to keep the kids coming through the line.Goldenbaum said that four years ago she wanted to move away from the fast-food trend. But parents complained, she said, telling her, "My child is skinny. My child only eats hamburgers and French fries."
Mark Sabella, director of dining for the Lindenhurst district, said cafeteria servers often face children who simply don't want the healthier options. He recalled helping on the line a few years ago when, "I put corn on the kid's tray and he cried until I took it off."At Daniel Street Elementary in Sabella's district, fifth-grader Kaitlyn Reichert was resolute about her love for chicken nuggets. If they disappeared from the cafeteria, she said, "I would bring my own lunch."
Goldenbaum says that what kids eat at home influences how they eat at school. George Pope, a fourth-grader at Greenport Elementary School, eats the standard meal daily -- throwing out the veggies because he hates them -- and usually gets a pretzel for a snack. But outside school, "I eat five hot dogs every day," he said with pride. "I like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese."
Garcia, the West Hempstead mother, said she rejects the view by some professionals who suggest kids themselves are an obstacle to improving school food. "I think that's an excuse," she said.
"Children will really eat what you give them," she said. And the same can apply to cafeteria meals, she said.
Without forcing them, Garcia said, she tries to get her children to be open-minded about food by showing them how it's made and by being an adult role model. "They see me eating it," she said. "They see my husband eating it."
Often, economic realities and the pressures of being working parents can make serving healthy food at home difficult.
When Jeffrey Chance's mother was asked about bringing her son a Burger King meal last year, she said, "I won't have time to make lunch, so yeah, I'll go to Burger King."
Annemarie Chance said she rarely purchases soda or burgers from fast-food outlets. "I'm a nurse," she said. "I always try to buy something that's at least a little bit healthy."
She works the night shift and her husband works days as a substance abuse counselor.
Her son simply doesn't like school food, she said, so buying items off a fast-food dollar menu or getting a Subway sandwich are the cheapest alternatives to home-cooked lunches.
"That's the only way he'll eat," she said. "Not all fast-food is unhealthy. The school food isn't that healthy, either."