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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009 | Thousands of teenagers pour from classrooms at San Diego High School and flock to the lunch lines, which stretch dozens deep on the paved pathways that stripe the campus. Some line up for the salad bar to load up on grapes and carrot sticks, some head for hot trays of burritos and taco salad, and some shell out a few dollars for fruit drinks or bowls of noodles from the carts that circle the commons.

And some eat poorly or go hungry to avoid waiting during their half hour lunch — or just to avoid the cafeteria food altogether.

“Kids don’t eat the lunch because of the lines,” said junior Joseph Kemp, who bought a bag of Baked Cheetos from a student store, poured nacho cheese on top, and ate it with a plastic spoon alongside his friend David Gutierrez. Kemp estimates that he skips lunch entirely two or three times a week. “I don’t even like to eat this stuff. But I’m hungry.”

“Sometimes you get food late and you can’t even eat,” Gutierrez added.

They are not alone in shunning the cafeteria line. San Diego Unified students are far less likely to eat the hot meals dished out by school cafeterias than are students in other urban school districts, according to an outside consultant. Less than 30 percent of San Diego Unified students eat the lunches that are guaranteed free for poor students and that meet minimum nutritional standards set by the government, compared to nearly 60 percent of students in other urban districts including Chicago, New York and Miami. The trend is consistent across all income groups and all but one high school in the district.

Not all who skip a cafeteria lunch are going hungry: Some students bring lunch from home and some buy food from carts or student stores on campus. But sitting out the cafeteria lunch has economic costs for the school district and potential health costs for teens. Reversing the trend could help fill both their bellies and San Diego Unified coffers.

School districts are reimbursed by the federal government for every full lunch that is served to a student, whether or not the student is poor. Those meals have to meet minimal nutritional guidelines set by the federal government, with each of their components adding up to the total. Students can also buy food a la carte — sometimes the same foods — but schools only get money back from the government if they buy the complete, approved meal.

The result is a weird twist of government economics: Cafeterias actually earn less from chips and taco pockets that teens purchase than for the trays of chicken strips and milk cartons that are given to many students for free. It can actually be more expensive to sell a piece of pizza and a sports drink to a teen than to give away a meal that might include pizza, carrots and milk.

And while school lunches are often criticized by nutrition groups as far from ideal, the meals that teens cobble together out of different foods can be less healthy — or simply less balanced — than the hot meals that must pass government muster, said Gary Petill, director of food services.

“No. 1 — we want them to eat,” Petill said. “And secondly, the more children and students that eat, the more sales that you ring up. It is pennies but it adds up.”

“My motivation is to get a complete meal into a student’s hand,” he added.

Petill believes part of the solution is splitting up high school students into several different lunch periods to shorten lines and get more teens to eat the reimbursable lunch. Multiple lunchtimes are common at other urban school districts but are new to high schools in San Diego Unified, which have traditionally had one lunch for all students, even at large campuses such as San Diego High. That means that cafeteria workers often scramble to serve thousands of students within a half hour — a tremendous feat even with multiple lines and alternative venues such as the San Diego High salad bar.

“The sheer numbers are so big and we do not have enough windows and enough space in the cafeteria to get the kids in faster,” said Ethel Larkins, president of a school workers union that includes food service employees. She works at Hoover High, which has the highest lunch participation rate in the school district at 84 percent. “People give up and go outside to the carts because the lines are long.”

Fadumo Musse, a junior at Morse High, said she had to hurry to get her hot lunch on Wednesday. “It’s a long line,” she said, “and people don’t get to eat sometimes.”

Staffers estimate that splitting lunch could boost the percentage of kids eating reimbursable meals to 46 percent and pump up revenues by $1.2 million — a tempting prospect as San Diego Unified braces for state budget cuts of $40 million or more. It would make the cafeteria a cash cow, a dramatic reversal for a program that now drains an estimated $750,000 annually from the school district because the federal money cannot cover its costs. And serving more lunches to teenagers is a far more appealing way to balance the San Diego Unified books than dismissing nurses or shutting down schools.

But the change faces fierce opposition from student groups who worry that splitting lunch will mean splitting friends and disrupting midday clubs and tutoring. Students will ditch classes to see girlfriends or boyfriends who have different lunchtimes, said senior Jose Bojorquez, who leads student government at Kearny High School. His group has joined with student governments from across San Diego Unified to pen a position paper against changing lunch schedules. Eighty percent of Kearny High students said they were happy with the current lunchtime schedule, said Mike Paredes, a teacher who advises the Kearny student government group, but they have been less happy about the food itself.

“I don’t know that there is glaring evidence for a second lunch period,” said Joe Austin, principal of the School of Business at San Diego High, pointing out that lines thin dramatically midway into the lunch period. Some teens said they had plenty of time to eat and simply chose not to get the cafeteria lunch. “Kids vote with their feet.”

Some are skeptical that adding more lunchtimes will actually prod more students toward the hot meals that are often dismissed as “nasty.” One student famously ran afoul of school rules by selling his own paninis at La Jolla High School as an alternative to meals he called “not healthy at all.” Though the school district is striving to add more variety and interest to its lunches — Petill has tried out sushi and teriyaki bowls, added salad bars to all elementary schools and rotates meals from day to day — it has struggled to keep meals appetizing on a tight budget and under logistical stress. Not all students are convinced.

“They don’t have real food,” said Canisha Connelly, a junior at Morse High School, as she waited in line with a cousin. She usually brings a sandwich from home. “It’s like microwavable stuff.” If the school district splits up lunchtime, Connelly said, “it will still be the same.”

The protests have even spread to Facebook, where more than 100 students have joined a group called “NO SPLIT LUNCH” that erroneously states that the school board has already approved the change. Like dozens of potential measures to balance the San Diego Unified, the change is being considered but has not been voted on by the school board, and would not occur until the next school year begins in the fall.

“If lunches are split it will destroy the convenience for many clubs to meet on a common basis,” wrote Nicholas Puleo, a 17-year-old student at Serra High School who participates in the school Academic League, in an e-mail. “… Split lunches will split the school in the process.”

Consultant Phil Stover, who helped analyze the lunch data, counters that clubs in other school districts meet after school or have figured out how to schedule common meetings outside of lunch. He reassures principals worried about how to schedule more lunch supervision or keep kids from disrupting other classes that schools in Chicago, New York and Atlanta are already making it happen — and getting far more lunches served to teens at the same time. Stover estimates that less than 10 percent of urban districts have a single lunchtime in their large high schools.

“What prompted this was not financial,” said Stover, president and senior partner of the Portolan Group. “What prompted it was these shocking results of just how low the school district was compared to others” in serving reimbursable meals.

Petill is also weighing how to make lunch more appetizing for the teens who are now opting for Cheetos or Powerade. Voters recently approved a facilities bond that will help refurbish cafeterias to serve more students; Petill wants the cafeterias to look like college food courts with booths and sofas. He is also trying to make more meals reimbursable for the federal government — and free to poor students — by bundling milk and fruit along with the pizza and chicken strips that teens now buy a la carte.

“It may be good for kids,” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the Administrators Association. “But it may not be what kids want.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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