Published on
The Los Angeles Times

Schools Are Taking The Mystery Out of The Meat They Serve

DeeDee Correll

CASTLE ROCK, COLO. - The precooked beef patties with the fake charcoal lines won't be on the menu at Castle View High School this fall.0623 08

Instead, students will dine on freshly grilled hamburgers from grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle -- what is often described as natural or organic meat -- raised on the plains of eastern Colorado.

No mystery meatloaf for these students; Douglas County south of Denver is among a handful of school districts in Colorado aiming to bring a touch of fine dining to lunch, replacing canned goods with fresh produce, banning French fries and Coke, and now expanding into upscale meats.

"We want to be best in class," said Brent Craig, the district's nutritional services director. "We want to do such a good job that kids enjoy eating lunch here."

Over the last decade, a movement to bring locally grown produce into schools has gained popularity; more than 8,000 schools in 39 states participate in such arrangements. In the last couple of years, school nutritionists have started considering locally produced meats as well, said Katie Wilson, president-elect of the School Nutrition Assn.

But practical considerations prevent most from switching, she said. Food safety is one issue. Schools typically use precooked meat in the meals they serve; buying it locally means handling fresh meat, something many districts aren't equipped to do, Wilson said.

"To have raw meat is really very risky these days," she said.

And meat served in schools must come from USDA-certified slaughterhouses, a requirement that can disqualify ranchers, said Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network.

Precooked beef supplied by the government is also inexpensive, so it's hard to be competitive, she said.

"People are finding it's a little more complicated than they initially thought," Eschmeyer said.

Even as school districts nationwide are raising lunch prices to offset climbing food costs, several Colorado districts have decided that the potential benefits of organic meats are worth the trouble. The meat is not only more healthful but more environmentally palatable, they say.

In the affluent Douglas County School District, parents like Susan Beane, 49, have encouraged more nutritious foods.

In one visit to a school cafeteria, Beane said, she saw grease dripping from the sandwiches as they were eaten. "That was really disgusting."

Beane leads the district's health advisory committee. Its goal: "food that is high-quality, produced locally, organic whenever possible," Beane said.


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For Craig's part, another goal is making food that students will eat. Although they aren't permitted to leave the campus during lunch, he said, they have ways of avoiding the cafeteria food, such as using their cellphones to order pizza. "So we have to do a good job," Craig said.

In the last year, the district has started serving a baked version of French fries, to the initial chagrin of students. It's also serving more fresh fruits and veggies and deli sandwiches. It offers Domino's pizza, but tops it with low-fat cheese. And it's replacing the "hockey pucks" -- as students dubbed the burgers -- with natural patties.

School officials are predicting that they'll go over well. In a recent taste test, students reacted to the grass-fed beef with accolades such as "actually tastes like beef," "almost like steak" and "Oh yeah!"

Trevor Heil, 14, is one fan. Although he usually brings a sack lunch, "I'll probably get the hamburger more often," he said.

Michael Blea, 16, isn't so sure. He likes the taste of grass-fed beef, but when it comes to lunch, he said, "I'm always going to go with the cheapest thing. I have to pay for my own lunches."

Craig said that instead of raising prices, the district will use savings to make up the difference. "Next year, we'll revisit that," he said.

If the price of lunch does go up, Beane predicted, Douglas families will be willing to pay.

Even less affluent Colorado Springs School District 11 -- where 42% of students come from lower-income families -- switched from frozen patties to natural meat this year. Its nutrition director, Rick Hughes, said he was tired of watching students beat a path to fast-food restaurants for lunch. "They were voting with their feet."

For him, it was a point of pride to lure them back. So Hughes bought natural beef from a local rancher.

The district will charge 25 cents more for high school lunches next year to help pay for the beef, which can cost twice as much as government beef. Already, more high school students are eating in the cafeteria: Overall consumption is up 13%.

In the southwestern Colorado town of Durango, student nutrition director Krista Garand also plans to switch next year to beef from a local rancher. She secured a price of $1.99 a pound for the beef -- not much more than her average for commercial ground beef, $1.58.

The Durango district will increase meal prices next year by 25 cents to offset the overall rise in food prices.

She said she hoped the new offerings would draw more students to the cafeteria.

So far, it's looking good, Garand said. Students participated in a test run of two lunches made with organic beef -- tacos and spaghetti with meat sauce -- and "they loved it," she said.

© 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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