By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
more predictable than complaints
about school cafeteria food, so
initially we wrote this year's
gripes off. But after they intensified,
we visited Lincoln High School
to see what could have upset so
many people so much. Our memories
of Des Moines public school (DMPS)
lunches are quite pleasant. Graduation
from brown bagging in elementary
school to hot cafeteria meals
at Callanan Junior High still
ranks with the greatest upgrades
of our dining life. We relished
that kitchen's creamed chicken
on mashed potatoes, beef and noodles,
ham-and-bean casserole and chili.
All those standards of our youth
lend themselves well to reheating,
too. So we didn't understand how
DMPS's new Central Kitchen could
have caused people to complain
about degraded quality. Too bad
they don't grade us for naiveté.
Judy Vickre runs the kitchen
at Lincoln. She's a bona fide
foodie and a veteran of two decades
who can recall a lot of changes,
but can't remember the recipes
we found so endearing.
"Students don't like those
old homemade foods anymore. They
grew up with two working parents
and fast food, so that's what
they want," she says.
Fast food is also Lincoln's
competition. Sophomores and above
can leave campus to eat, and many
do, even though lunch break is
only 25 minutes. Both students
and teachers told us that many
younger students also leave, despite
rules. You can see taco stands,
pizza parlors, sandwich shops
and burger joints from Lincoln's
front yard, which might explain
DMPS's reactionary strategy of
offering options that simulate
the specialties of those fast-food
Students have multiple choices
that never existed in my era.
On our visit, Lincoln offered
a pasta bar, a sandwich bar and
salad bar. Vickre said that burritos,
chicken patties and pizza are
the most popular specials. Chicken
patties are so popular that, when
they are offered, the cafeteria
reduces salad output from 1,042
the previous day to just 580.
And those numbers reflect patty-preference
at elementary schools to which
Lincoln redelivers meals.
In the new Central Kitchen system,
Lincoln orders prepped foods (e.g.,
bags of cooked pasta and bags
of sauce), and then mixes and
bakes the items for a secondary
bussing to Moore, Granger, Howell,
Jackson and Wright. Students at
those schools are restricted to
two choices - hence the dramatic
drop in salads from one day to
"Central Kitchen has changed
things for the better. It's standardized.
Everybody gets the same thing
now. Before, each cook used to
make things their own way. We
don't waste time now ordering
so many ingredients," Vickre
We coaxed criticism of the new
system, but the closest thing
we heard was a nostalgic reminiscence
"Lincoln had the best bakery
and the aroma made it such a wonderful
place to work," she says.
Half a dozen veteran teachers
agreed, some emotionally, that
fresh-baked foods were the biggest
loss in the new system. Teachers,
half of them brown bagging, were
far more critical than cafeteria
personnel. (We were told that
the latter feared "reassignment
reprisal.") One first-year
teacher did say the "choice"
is far better than what he had
in high school in Minnesota, but
even he added that, "The
actual food isn't as good here."
Our pork-cutlet sandwich had
been reheated in a confection
oven, not a fryer. The bun was
rubbery and the cutlet was grainy.
It came with the driest, chewiest
French fries we have ever tasted,
canned corn, a banana and AE milk.
Fruit and beverage options were
considerable. (Students $1.85;
In the end, we left without
seeing the upside to food bussing.
The reheated simulated fast foods
being offered today can't compete
against their franchise joint
equivalences on any level - except
their subsidized price. The advantages
of double bussing are even less
clear. And in light of gasoline
inflation, we'd bet the new system
hasn't been adequately budgeted.
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