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Same as it ever was

In the elementary school lunchroom.


A new day may be dawning for students in the Fayetteville public schools, thanks to a district chef who wants to put real food back on the menu. And in Little Rock, Carver and Gibbs magnet schools have teaching gardens. But at three elementary schools the Times visited, in the Little Rock, Pulaski County and North Little Rock school districts, choices were limited and carbohydrates reigned.

Chenal Elementary School's shiny new cafeteria is so spacious it would almost swallow other elementary schools whole. The kitchen portion of the cafeteria is tiny in comparison, but it doesn't need much room. Lunches aren't dished up onto plates, but come all of a piece in Styrofoam boxes, with plastic forks and knives — no dishwashing required.

On the day this reporter went, lunch was a hamburger, pickles, French fries and pineapple bits. Milk and chocolate milk were available. Lettuce and tomato slices were served separately on a small table off to the side of the line, though the amount was meager and hidden under paper napkins.

The best thing about the lunch: the French fries. The hamburger was a small pre-fab combo, mediocre beef in a mediocre bun. Maybe less than mediocre. Maybe just serviceable. The pineapple, sadly, was pale, watery and tasteless. Pickles are pickles.

The kids around the reporter apparently agreed with her assessment; many ate all their fries and left the hamburger untouched. However, had they eaten all, their meat, fruit and starch would have surpassed in quality most of the lunches that came from home: Pop tarts, chips, cookies and other packaged snack food dominated. The exception: One child looked like she had some sort of delicious-looking Asian chicken and carrot sticks. "She always has food that looks like that," a reporter was advised by a friendly fourth-grader.

None of the children were paying much attention to the food in front of them. But that is the way of children; they were far more tuned in to the story one of their peers was telling them, about farting loudly on the school bus. Soon, the whole table was saying, "Boom!" and before long lunch was over, the detritus tossed in big trash bins wheeled from table to table.

— Leslie Newell Peacock

Here's what we found out about the lunch at Meadow Park Elementary in North Little Rock: It is food. Indeed, you can eat it. But that's about all you can say for it. We were offered two options: barbecue sandwich or cheeseburger. We went with the cheeseburger, hoping there had been some sort of innovation in the field of frozen soybean patties since we left the elementary school lunch table for the last time. There hasn't been. The rest of the tray was filled with the usual suspects: French fries, pink apple sauce and a cookie. Chocolate milk used to be one of our favorites so we decided to go with it over the low-fat offering.

The fries were crinkle-cut and a little cold, but as good a side as any for a cheeseburger. We did learn one thing on our dining excursion: cherry Jell-o mix is what makes pink applesauce pink. This secret was provided by a member of the custodial staff who sat nearby and who used to work in an elementary school cafeteria. She said a lot of things have changed since the days she first worked in a school kitchen. For one, most everything is pre-made now. It's easier for schools to serve pre-made foods because they're easier to prepare and a lot of the cost of running a cafeteria comes from the labor needed for preparation. Also, she says, more foods are baked — as opposed to fried — and cafeteria kitchens use a lot less butter than they used to. Judging by the taste of that cookie, they might want to re-think that no-butter policy.

— Gerard Matthews

What with it being situated smack-dab in the middle of well-to-do and oh-so-healthy Hillcrest, I figured the food at Pulaski Heights Elementary might be different from the lunchroom horrors I remember as a child. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Friday we visited, the menu consisted of nachos with ground beef, a side of baked beans, a banana and graham crackers. Though the banana was as God made it (if still a little green), the graham crackers wrapped in plastic and therefore impossible to mess up, and the baked beans fair to middlin', any resemblance the nachos might have borne to what you'd find at even the greasiest of greasy spoons was purely coincidental. A handful of tortilla chips had been slathered with what was literally the foulest-looking glop I've ever actually eaten on purpose, drunk or sober (and that's saying something); a horrific gray/yellow goop, swimming with dust-colored bits of ground beef. If you could somehow siphon the lingering evil out of the mummified corpse of Josef Stalin and put it on chips, this is how I imagine it would look. When I brought my photograph of the stuff back to the office, the guy charged with doing our layout took one look and honestly almost yurked.

Yet, I was prepared to take one for the team. If mere babes could stomach it, surely a strapping grown daddy like Yours Truly could. I closed my eyes, put it in my mouth, chewed and swallowed. Yeah, it was bad. The book wasn't as bad as the cover, but it was real, real bad. Bland. Lukewarm. Slimy, with a terrible al dente quality to the ground beef that made it feel like you were eating bits of ground-up sneaker.

The schools are trying to serve a battalion of kids a balanced meal on less than two bucks per head a day. But I challenge anyone in the Little Rock School District administration to look at my photos and honestly say what is pictured there looks like something they'd want to eat, any time, ever, short of being stranded on a desert island or incarcerated in a windswept Ukrainian gulag. Yes, it might give the kids their recommended caloric intake for lunch, but so will haunch of roadkill raccoon. Too, it would be different if I didn't know that less than five blocks away from Pulaski Heights Elementary, Taco Bell is selling tacos — a taco shell or flour tortilla, lettuce, cheese, seasoned ground beef and a little packet of sauce — for 99 cents each, and they don't look like something the cat already ate.

Chips, nacho cheese, seasoned ground beef. Is it really that difficult?

—David Koon

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