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Long Island

What's on those lunch trays? Look what LI schools are serving students

Kindergartener Serenity Rodriguez, 5, with her lunch at

Kindergartener Serenity Rodriguez, 5, with her lunch at Hemlock Park Elementary School in Bay Shore on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. Lunch consisted of sweet and sour chicken, brown rice, steamed broccoli, egg roll, mandarin oranges and milk. Serenity's favorite item was the fortune cookie. Credit: Ryan C. Jones

When you hear the words "school lunch," what feeling comes to mind?

Anticipation? Dread? Loathing?

School officials are focused these days on offering more nutritional and tasty meals to students, but they can relate to having experienced the alternative.

"Gone are the days of mystery meat and peanut butter sandwiches," said Kerri O'Donnell, food service director at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Bethpage. "Unlike many of our staff members' memories, our kitchen does a great job of keeping current with recipes that you would see at a local restaurant -- things such as wraps, salads and even buffalo chicken pizza keep the students happy and satisfied."

National School Lunch Week starts Oct. 12 at schools across America. Who knew that besides creating the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy enacted this program in 1962. By order of Congress, it is observed annually during the second week of October.

The school lunch program is an important nutritional lifeline for hungry children. According to a 2014 presidential proclamation announcing last year's School Lunch Week, "In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, which provided meals for more than 7 million children in its first year. Since then, more than 220 billion lunches have been served."

Inspired by this year's theme of "School Lunch Snapshots," photographers for LILIfe visited Nassakeag Elementary School in East Setauket, which is observing the week, as well as other elementary, middle and high schools across Long Island to take a look at what's on the menu, see what kids like and meet the staffs that prepare the meals.

Schools must offer food that meets state and federal dietary and nutrition guidelines. The menu is often determined by food service directors, who get input from chefs and registered dietitians, and also from parents, students and wellness committees.

Food staff know that they will be remembered not only for their culinary skills but for their tableside manner.

"I remember as a child that we were not fortunate to have more than one menu choice for the day," said Louise Lovett, the chef at Forest Avenue Elementary in West Babylon. "I remember everyone loving our lunch ladies, and that is what I try to be to the students, because I know someday they will look back and remember us!"

Lovett and other Long Island school officials said they focus on preparing delicious options that are healthy, recognizing the link between proper nutrition and classroom performance.

"I know that with an excellent meal and a pleasant experience that the children will be more likely to learn," said Lovett, whose staff recently offered students a lunch of chicken teriyaki salad with dinner roll, bean salad, peaches and chocolate milk.

At the private Ross School in East Hampton, whose students are pre-nursery to 12th grade, more than two dozen staff members prepare and serve students their lunch, which is based on seasonally and locally available foods. Liz Dobbs, the executive chef, said she also draws inspiration from cuisines that reflect the diverse cultural backgrounds of the student body.

"The goal is to consistently offer students foods that are varied, nutritious, flavorful and globally representative, while incorporating lessons of sustainability regarding both personal well-being and the environment," said Dobbs.

A recent lunch included hard-boiled, cage-free brown eggs, Swiss chard, organic steamed tofu with tonkatsu sauce, kimchee and red quinoa.

Sounds yummy. Bon appétit, students.

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