Get A Grip: Fast food outlets in schools should go the way of the Cheese Boat

The Cheese Boat has sailed.

The dreaded school lunch entrée from my childhood has sailed, and certainly sunk, into oblivion.

I was alerted to the demise of the Cheese Boat on a visit to Hualapai Elementary School where Karma Jones, director of food services for Kingman Unified School District, graciously invited me to lunch.

Ms.

Jones had read a column I wrote after I heard the news that last week had been declared National School Lunch Week.

That information had caused me to reflect without fondness upon the hot lunches served when I was in elementary school in California – lo those many years ago.

Anyway, that was how I found myself sitting in the cafeteria with a table of third graders last Thursday.

It was an eye-opening, and surprisingly gastronomically pleasing experience.

As we ate, Ms.

Jones educated me on the intricacies of school lunch in 2001.

My first surprise was that cheese was still a major player in the hot lunch world.

Last week first graders chose the menu and first graders apparently are fond of cheese.

But the Cheese Boat – yucky cheese that drowns a piece of flimsy white bread – was not an option because today menus must conform to strict nutritional standards.

And so, on my tray last Thursday rested four breaded cheese sticks, marinara sauce for dipping, a serving of cooked carrots and grapes for dessert.

I eschewed the traditional carton of milk and had a glass of water instead.

My next surprise was that the lunch ladies were really nice.

In my memory lunch ladies are large fearsome creatures stuffed into starched white dresses, looking malevolently out from behind thick steamed glasses with gray beehives squashed into hair nets.

I don't know what ever happened to these women, but the women at Hualapai were a different breed.

Normal looking and nice, the kids were obviously very fond of these lunch ladies.

I even observed a spontaneous hug.

"That's the best part of the job," Ms.

Jones said as we saw the hug.

"The kids are just great."

And they were.

Again my memories of a rowdy cafeteria were supplanted by a cafeteria full of friendly chatter rather than raucous clatter.

The kids were nice, the food was good.

School lunch has changed.

But not for everyone.

Karma Jones and her crew begin work at 5 a.m.

They bake bread and chop vegetables as the sun begins to light up the Hualapai Mountains.

They prepare breakfast and lunches to be served at almost all of the schools in the KUSD.

There are two exceptions.

Mt.

Tipton School in Dolan Springs gets its supplies from the food services department but has its own kitchen to prepare meals in.

The other exception is Kingman High School North.

At Kingman High School the nutritional lessons of elementary school are thrown forcibly out the window as students' options for hot lunch consist solely of fast food franchises that operate out of the school cafeteria.

Ms.

Jones said she would like to take over operation of the kitchen at KHS North and could provide nutritionally balanced lunches that would appeal to high schoolers.

One popular option she instituted at KHS South this year is a salad bar.

There she also serves burgers and other items that mimic fast food but are designed to fit into the rigid nutritional standards set by the federal government.

The problem at KHS North is that the school profits from the franchises that operate there.

KHS is not alone.

Franchise fast food is popping up in schools across the nation because schools need the money.

At KHS North, the food vendors will generate $17,500 this year, according to figures from KUSD.

District officials say that money pays the salary of the culinary arts teacher at the high school.

I certainly wouldn't want the culinary arts teacher to lose a job but $17,500 doesn't seem like an impossibly large amount of money.

Perhaps the district could find that money elsewhere in a budget that can afford 13 directors who are paid salaries from $58,968 to $69,582.

According to Ms.

Jones, the food service department pays its own way so the only hit the district would take by eliminating the fast food franchises would be the $17,500.

I hope the district finds a way to send the fast food franchises the way of the Cheese Boat.

Neither one have a place in a healthy diet.

And neither one helps the overall education of our kids.

Mind you, I'm not opposed to fast food in general.

But it really doesn't belong in school.

School lunch has changed but there's still work to be done.

And I think Karma Jones and her crew are the right ones for the job.