Ed Bruske recently spent a week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in the District of Columbia observing how food is prepared. This is the third of a six-part series of posts about what he saw. Read parts 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. Cross-posted from The Slow Cook. And check out the rest of the Cafeteria Confidential series.

frozen veggiesEach morning Mattie Hall performs a ritual in the cafeteria at H.D. Cooke elementary school. She takes 17 blue, insulated travel bags and lines them up on the lunch counter. Then she begins filling the bags with fruits or vegetables from all over the country: one day it’s 1.6-ounce plastic bags of carrot bites from California, another day whole oranges from Florida, another day apples from Washington state or New Zealand.

Each bag is assigned to one of the classrooms at H.D. Cooke. The fruits and vegetables are a morning snack, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables in schools with a high enrollment of needy students. Around 10:30 a.m., students, usually in pairs, begin making their way to the kitchen to retrieve the bags and take them back to their classrooms.

Hall, who is nearing retirement and has seen it all where school food is concerned, says she has a pretty good idea what will happen to those snacks after they leave the kitchen. If what’s inside the bag is fruit, it most likely will be eaten. “Kids love the fruit. they never send fruit back,” said Hall. But vegetables are a different story. If the day’s snack is a raw vegetable, as the vegetable snacks invariably are, chances are it will come back in the bag at the end of the day.

Kids will eat carrots, Hall says, but that’s about it. “They don’t eat the broccoli,” she says. “They don’t eat the zucchini squash and a lot of them won’t eat the cucumbers.”

In fact, Hall said, some of the students have devised an ingenious method for avoiding vegetable snacks: They don’t bring their bag back at the end of the day as they are supposed to, but instead wait until the last minute, making an appearance just before snack time in the morning knowing that vegetables have already been dispensed and that Hall will give them some kind of fruit instead. “They know I won’t refuse them,” Hall says with a wry smile. “I can’t refuse them.”

It sounds a little far-fetched. I wonder if Hall isn’t pulling my leg. But sure enough, after most of the bags have left the kitchen, I watch as the stragglers begin to appear with their empty bags from the day before. Hall gives them bananas.

On that particular day, Thursday, the snack was cucumbers, having arrived pre-sliced in sealed plastic tubs from Keany Produce in Landover, Md. There were only enough tubs for about half the snack bags; the rest got bananas. I asked Hall if the cucumbers wouldn’t be more palatable if they included a dressing, such as the Kraft ranch dressing that proliferates in the cafeteria in individual foil packets.

“They don’t send enough (dressing) in here for me to do that,” Hall says. She’s certain the cucumbers will not be eaten. “I’m going to come in here on Monday and those cucumbers will still be sitting in those bags and I have to deal with it,” she says in a low voice.  But it’s even worse than that. Not only is Friday a day off for “staff development,” but Monday is a holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The uneaten cucumber slices would be sitting in their plastic tubs for four days, unrefrigerated, before Hall got to them.

When I ask my 10-year-old daughter about this, she confirms that kids eat the carrots, but not so much the other vegetables. “They like to turn them into slush,” she says. When I ask her what that means, she says: “They step on them in the plastic bag.”

Health authorities are desperate to get children to eat less fatty, salty, and sugary foods and more vegetables as a way to combat the growing incidence of childhood obesity. First Lady Michele Obama famously planted a vegetable garden at the White House, brought in D.C. school children to help, and has made better diets for kids her personal crusade. “Healthy Schools” legislation now pending before the D.C. Council would require that children in Kindergarten though eighth grade be served a minimum 3.75 cups of vegetables per week, with at least one half cup each of “dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, and legumes.” High school students would be served five cups weekly.

But as every parent knows, serving vegetables is one thing. Getting kids to actually eat those vegetables is quite another. Some kids love certain vegetables. Others will go to elaborate lengths to avoid vegetables, picking them out of their food with extraordinary determination. This is a battle we fight with our 10-year-old daughter every day.

The kitchen supervisor at H.D. Cooke, Tiffany Whittington, is sympathetic. “I don’t eat vegetables,” she says. “When I was eight, I used to eat dinner at my half-sister’s aunt’s house. She would make me sit at the table until I finished everything on my plate. I was stubborn. I would sit there all night.”

What kids really want are all the familiar fast foods. “I really like pizza on Fridays,” says one eight-year-old girl. “I like the chicken. But I think my favorite thing is hamburgers.”

In a survey of its members in 2004, the School Nutrition Association found that pizza was by far the favorite food in schools, followed by chicken (meaning chicken nuggets), corn, and french fries. If you combined all types of potatoes, however, potato would come in second. Potato is treated as a vegetable in the National School Lunch Program, even though it is so starchy it might as well be white bread as far as the human body is concerned. Salad did not even make it onto the list.

The same day the cucumbers went out in Mattie Hall’s snack bags, mixed vegetables appeared on the lunch menu along with “Asian noodles” and “teriyaki beef bites.” When students enter the food line, or “Kid’s Stop Cafe,” at H.D. Cooke they immediately pull a carton of milk out of a cooler, then pick up a disposable Styrofoam tray that doubles as a plate. Under rules set forth by the school lunch program, which subsidizes the meals, students must be served at least three items from the foods offered — in this case the the milk, the noodles, the beef, the vegetables, and canned diced peaches — in order to be nutritionally complete. But since kids have a choice, they can opt out of the vegetables.

I could hear Mattie Hall, who was helping with the lunch service, asking the children as they passed: “Do you want vegetables? Do you want vegetables?” And I could hear the replies: “No! No! No! No!” Standing at the other end of the line, I quickly lost count of the number of students who exited the “Kid’s Stop Cafe” with a tray containing chocolate milk, noodles, beef patties, canned peaches — but no vegetables.

Advocates for better school lunches suggest that kids would eat more vegetables if the vegetables were more appealing, prepared more creatively. Other than the fresh produce provided for snacks, most of the vegetables served at H.D. Cooke arrive frozen or canned. This certainly speeds up food preparation and reduces the need for skilled labor in the kitchen. Labor represents roughly half the cost of school food service. But more speed and convenience typically means less flavor and eye appeal in the finished product.

The first day I arrived at the H.D. Cooke kitchen to observe how food was prepared, kitchen supervisor Tiffany Whittington was readying frozen mixed vegetables by cooking them in a commercial steamer, then seasoning them with a butter-flavored vegetable oil spread to boost the flavor. The vegetables looked dull and tired.

Similarly, on Thursday, Whittington prepared a mix of broccoli and cauliflower florets and sliced carrots from Mexico that had been blanched, or partially cooked, and shipped frozen in 20-pound bags. Coming out of the bags, the vegetables were gleaming and full of color. But after they were cooked in a deep stainless pan covered with foil in the steamer, the broccoli had turned from bright green to drab olive. After an hour of lunch service on the steam table, the broccoli had completely disintegrated and was no longer recognizable, except as specks clinging to the carrots and cauliflower. This is what the kids were refusing.

One of the menu items in the recipe book provided by Chartwells, the company that handles food for D.C. Public Schools, is titled “Roasted Italian Vegetables.” It calls for fresh yellow squash, green zucchini, fresh tomatoes, green peppers, and onions. I try to picture how that would look on the steam table at H.D. Cooke. It certainly would be a change from the usual routine of frozen or canned vegetables. I wonder if the kids would find it more appealing.

One thing students do seem to like, despite the findings of the School Nutrition Association, is salad. At H.D. Cooke, that typically means five-pound bags of prepared iceberg lettuce from California. Inside the bags of torn iceberg are separate little bags of grated carrots and grated purple cabbage. It’s all tossed together, frequently with shredded cheddar cheese, then offered on the lunch line from time to time with packets of ranch dressing. Or, it can serve as one of the daily “alternate” meals.

Whittington says alternates are the most likely place to find fresh vegetables in the cafeteria. Turkey wraps, for instance, are made with fresh lettuce and diced tomatoes. But normally she would only make 10 of these for the approximately 280 students she serves lunch to on any given day. Most kids take the regular meal that’s offered. But on Thursday when I was there, while kids were refusing the vegetable combo with the disintegrating broccoli, they were scooping up an alternate meal consisting of paper “boats” filled with iceberg lettuce salad, “popcorn chicken” — little balls of breaded chicken baked in the oven — and a dinner roll. Under the rules, this constitutes a complete meal: vegetable from the lettuce, protein from the chicken, grain from the bread.

In the dining room, children squeeze gobs of ranch dressing onto their lettuce, and it’s no wonder they like it. A single, two-tablespoon serving of Kraft ranch contains 12 grams of fat, or 18 percent of the daily recommended allowance of fat for an adult. The other ingredients are a food chemist’s brew: sugar (a half-teaspoon), modified food starch, phosphoric acid, monosodium glutamate, xanthan gum, polysorbate 60, sodium lactate, natamycin, and calcium disodium EDTA.

Healthy food advocates offer yet another line of attack on the vegetable front: locally grown produce. According to this thinking, foods that are grown locally and minimally processed are more nutritious and more likely to be eaten because they are fresher, more appetizing, more flavorful. The “Healthy Schools” bill would require D.C. schools to serve locally and sustainably grown produce “whenever possible.” It would further require that schools identify the origins of all the produce they serve.

In the cafeteria at H.D. Cooke, posters with kid-friendly animal figures extol the virtues of seasonal, fresh fruits, and vegetables. “Eat Healthy!” declares one. “Fresh foods contain lots of vitamins and minerals. So if I eat healthy fruit I will keep my body strong!” 

“By growing my own vegetables just like farmers, I can eat well and have more brain power!” exhorts another.

Since the late 1990s, more than 2,000 school districts around the country have incorporated some form of farm-to-school scheme in their meal service. Salad bars are a popular option. In the last year, a D.C. Farm to School Network has formed around local food advocacy groups and has played a role in drafting the “Healthy Schools” initiative. (Full disclosure: I sit on the network’s advisory board.)

Serving local produce to the approximately 40,000 students in the public schools, plus another 20,000 students in public charter schools, would certainly boost the local farm economy. But since so much of the fruits and vegetables served in schools is designed for a production scheme that relies on frozen and canned convenience foods, it’s unclear how local farm products would fit in. Could the schools build their own processing facility? Or, could schools afford to start making meals from scratch?

As always, where school food is concerned, money is an issue.

Next: Everything goes down better with sugar.