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On a recent afternoon at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif., students sat at picnic tables and bit into McDonald’s cheeseburgers, Subway sandwiches and Quiznos flatbreads. They didn’t have to travel far to get their fast-food fix for lunch. In fact, they didn’t even have to leave campus. The burgers and sandwiches were available right inside their school cafeteria.
As they try to keep pace with student taste, lunchrooms across the country have given up meatloaf and mashed potatoes for brand-name fast-food items. In Edmond, Okla., middle school students load up their trays with Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. In Niskayuna, NY, elementary-schoolers get slices of Pizza Hut, fresh from the deliveryman. In Livermore, Calif., the high school cafeteria offers Panda Express rice bowls, Little Caesar’s pizza and burritos from a local chain.
Those choices don’t exactly encourage healthy eating habits, as they reinforce children’s taste for fast food. But even in the face of an obesity epidemic, cafeteria directors say they need the brand-name meals to keep their programs running.
“This community is very brand-conscious,” said Frank Castro, who runs the lunch program in the Pleasanton Unified School District. “I could offer the same hamburger or a better quality burger, but it wouldn’t increase my lunch count.”
For Castro and other meal program directors, increasing the lunch count — the number of student purchases — is key to staying in business. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program receive federal reimbursements for every meal they serve, along with agricultural commodities donated by the Department of Agriculture. That allows them to offer free and reduced-price meals to low-income students. But the government support only covers about half of the expenses for a typical cafeteria. To cover labor and facilities costs and keep their programs in the black, food service supervisors turn to students with lunch money.
The only way to keep the lunchroom running, then, is to keep students buying. And when brand-name items appear on the menu, “the kids will line up a mile long,” said Amy Hedrick, the food service supervisor in the Scotts Valley Unified School District in California.
Hedrick used to offer a generic pizza for lunch, and 250 to 300 students would line up in the cafeteria. Now, when she dishes out slices of Round Table at her elementary schools, she serves up to 400 kids.
“Financially, it’s better for us if we go up to 400 meals,” Hedrick said. “If I do not break even and I encroach into the general fund, I’m going to have to cut back my staff.”
It’s the same story in Livermore, where Director of Campus Catering Barbara Lee serves entrees from Panda Express, Little Caesar’s and a local Mexican food chain. Lee has tried making her own burritos, her own teriyaki chicken and her own sandwiches on homemade bread. But with high labor costs and inadequate facilities, cooking from scratch is difficult and costly. What’s more, students don’t buy the homemade items; Lee is lucky if she can sell four sandwiches on a given day.