After my surprisingly good experience with Pattonville High School’s lunches, I went into Parkway North assuming I’d find yet another example of how St. Louis schools were vastly superior to everything represented in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC. Oliver is on a mission to improve nutrition in the nation's schools.
As I entered the cafeteria, I first passed a group of snack carts laden with a wide variety of Little Debbie Snack Cakes and assorted potato chips. Next came an ice cream stand offering scoops of cookies and cream, vanilla or chocolate as well as ice cream sandwiches and frozen cone treats. A few feet away stood a bank of half a dozen vending machines packed with candy bars, chips and cookies. In a token nod to health, the sodas were all diet, and the Powerade machines did offer water.
None of the kids eating at that end of the cafeteria went through the school lunch line. A few packed something from home, but the majority made their lunches from a mix of Little Debbie snacks, a bag of chips and and some ice cream. At $1.50 or less for each item, the sugary vended meals cost less than the $4 premium Viking Line.
At the opposite end of the cafeteria, the school’s hot offerings were divided into four sections: the Viking line, the hamburger line, the Healthy Choices line and the salad bar. Staff described the Viking Line as the school’s most popular offering. The day I visited, it sold toasted ravioli with marinara sauce, but other days it has food brought in from Arby’s, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A and St. Louis Bread Company.
The premium Viking line and the cheeseburger line flank the main cafeteria lunch area. While the fast food was disappointing, the cheeseburgers were transfixing. I thought preheated school cheeseburgers left all day in a steam tray went out with grunge music and dial-up Internet. But there they were, stacks of premade cheeseburgers with patties of dubious texture and intimidatingly moist buns served with crisp, deep fried French fries that were only growing crunchier under the heat lamp.
The fruit offerings did include whole bananas or apples and the genuinely fantastic trail mix I enjoyed at Pattonville. However, in addition to the whole fruit, the other options were nothing but sugar: processed sugar and cinnamon sweetened applesauce, a cup of processed sugar syrup-filled mandarin orange slices, or a sugar cookie.
Marlene Pfeiffer, registered dietitian and food service supervisor for Parkway School District, directed me to the healthy options line. I’m not sure what I expected from healthy options, but it certainly wasn’t a large slice of Pizza Hut pizza. I’m still not sure what’s healthy about choosing between sausage, pepperoni or cheese. The other option of the day was a very dubious looking ham and cheese pretzel sandwich. Side items were either tater tots or sweet potato fries. Both were so mushy they were served with an ice cream scoop and became densely packed spheres.
Vegetarians, lactose intolerant individuals (all entrées had dairy), Jewish and Muslim students (the ham and cheese sandwich and the pizza both had pork) and anyone remotely health conscious could visit the cold salad bar for the same price as the hot food line.
Here, Parkway deserves genuine praise. The expansive salad bar had more than 30 items and was chock full of fresh, crisp vegetables. Students could build a plate with iceberg lettuce or spinach as the base and pile it high with choices, including expensive items such as red bell peppers, mushrooms and snow peas. There were three homemade salads at the end, including a good tuna salad. This was a restaurant quality salad bar, and Parkway’s food service has every right to be proud of it.
Pfeiffer said that the only items made from scratch were the cookies, sloppy joes, spaghetti sauce and soups. When I asked why the school opted for so much fast food, she explained it as a distribution problem.
Parkway High School’s kitchen is responsible for preparing the food for all eight schools in the Parkway district. The food then has to be kept at 135 degrees Fahrenheit and transported to the elementary and middle schools for local distribution. She often doesn’t have the pans or heaters available to keep everything at the correct temperature, so she outsources to vendors such as Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Little Caesar's, which have the supplies necessary to keep foods at healthy temperatures.
She said about a third of Parkway High students ate school lunches. When the fast food Viking Line was added on, that number surged to 50 percent. As I looked around, it seemed the tables closest to the cafeteria matched her numbers. About a third of the kids at any given table were eating a school lunch, a third ate something they brought from home, and the rest ate a combination of snack cakes, chips, premanufactured Smucker’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and diet soda for lunch.
When asked why the school offered so many sweets, Pfeiffer said, “By high school, kids are old enough to read labels and decide for themselves. If we take everything away, they’ll go to Quik Trip and get it.”
However, most of the sweets available were not under her jurisdiction. Vending machine availability, quantity and contents are decided by individual school principals. Parkway schools get a share of the profits from all the candy bars and chips sold in the six cafeteria vending machines. The school also allows student clubs to sell doughnuts in the mornings as fundraisers, which Pfeiffer said competed successfully against her healthier breakfast options.
It’s difficult not to compare Parkway’s lunch offerings to Pattonville’s lunch.
Parkway’s salad bar wins hands down. This is a restaurant quality offering stocked with an excellent diversity of fresh vegetables, tasty toppings and made-from-scratch, cold salads.
However, staring down my slice of Pizza Hut brand pizza was difficult when Pattonville makes theirs from scratch using a whole wheat crust and lowfat cheese. Parkway’s staff seemed genuinely proud of the diversity of fast food options available any given week, whereas the Pattonville staff were proud of having almost booted fast food out of the school.
In addition to fast food, Parkway’s reliance on packaged foods was an incredible contrast to Pattonville’s emphasis on making as much as possible from scratch.
At Parkway, my lunch consisted of a slice of Pizza Hut pizza, a tub of sugar-sweetened cinnamon applesauce, a 4-ounce box of apple juice and a scoop of tater tot mush. All were prepared items purchased from vendors. If I wanted to substitute any of them for something made fresh that day, my only option was a sugar cookie.
At Pattonville, I had hummus on a very respectable vegetable wrap alongside some fresh-baked chicken nuggets with a whole wheat crust and trail mix for dessert. All were prepared at the school. There were no cookies, candy, snack cakes or sweets. The only dessert options were juice or fruit.
Pfeiffer said that Parkway had tried to instigate healthier options, but students protested, signed petitions and went to the Parent Teacher Organization with their complaints. The program was discontinued in 20 days.
Terree Davis, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Pattonville School District told me a similar story of how students boycotted the cafeteria when they replaced fried white potato French fries with baked sweet potato fries. Students signed petitions, wrote angry letters and fought for the return of their fries. It took a semester, but the students got over it. Now, when Pattonville is contemplating cutting back on sweet potato fries in favor of more green vegetables, students are once more threatening to boycott if the school takes away their now beloved sweet potato fries, one of their best sellers.
Parkway has the right idea. Any restaurant would have a right to be proud of their salad bar. Both the cheeseburger line and healthy options line included fresh fruit among their side dish offerings. The cafeteria is far superior to the downright scary offerings seen on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.
However, Pattonville demonstrated that it really is possible for a school with the same per student budget in the same part of St. Louis to offer healthier versions of kid friendly foods like pizza and tacos without the reliance on fast food and sugary, packaged snacks with no nutritional value.