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San Diego Schools Serve It Up to Students

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There's not a restaurant in the region that serves more food than San Diego City Schools. Monday through Friday in the district, school kitchens churn out some 120,000 meals and snacks a day. KPBS Hea

San Diego Schools Serve It Up to Students

(Photo: Food workers in the Scripps Ranch High School kitchen get lunch ready for hundreds of students. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

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There's not a restaurant in the region that serves more food than San Diego City Schools . Monday through Friday in the district, school kitchens churn out some 120-thousand meals and snacks a day.

 KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg takes a look at what goes on at one of the district's busy kitchens.

At ten AM, the pressure is on in the kitchen at Scripps Ranch High School.

In ninety minutes, hundreds of hungry high schoolers will cram into this cafeteria. And the food better be ready.

Kitchen workers have been here since six. Besides preparing food for Scripps Ranch High, this kitchen serves six elementary schools, a middle school, and two childcare centers.

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Right now, workers are baking, steaming, chopping, and assembling.

Kitchen manager Pam Juarez describes today's menu.

Pam Juarez: We have a marinara pasta bowl, a spicy chicken sandwich. We serve the Vienna firedogs. We're packaging up mozzarella bread sticks, which we serve with the marinara sauce.

They're also serving cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, and bean and cheese burritos. Juarez says that's not all.

Juarez: We have a girl that comes in the mornings and she slices all of our meats fresh. The kids get a cured turkey sandwich, which is a turkey ham and a turkey breast. So she does that daily for us, so that they have fresh sandwiches.

Kids can choose fresh fruit, and a bagel with yogurt. Or they can take a trip to the salad bar.

Juarez says despite the flurry of activity in the kitchen, there's little actual cooking going on.

She says that's quite a contrast to back in the day.

Juarez: When I first started working, we made everything from scratch. The breads, the cookie dough, all of our meals. Today, basically most of it is packaged, we do very little from scratch cooking. We do bake off the cookies, but they come in frozen.

At 11:30, kids come in starving.

Students: Can I get a chicken patty?...Hey, can I get the mozzarella cheese sticks?...Hi, can I get a bean and cheese burrito and the kettle popcorn?...

District officials say the food is much healthier than it used to be.

Gary Petill is the food services director for San Diego Unified Schools. 

Gary Petill: We've made a drastic change in trying to become more healthy. Everything that we use is, you know, wheat buns, whole wheat buns, grain breads. A lot more fruits and vegetables are being served now than before, where there were a lot of meat products.

And how do kids like the changes?

Students:  You get to make your own salad, sometimes they give us meat for the salad, so everything's great…It doesn't look very healthy or appetizing, but it tastes pretty decent…They need some improvements. We gotta get more like, fries and all that…

There are no more French fries, fried chicken, or anything fried. That's because trans fats are out in San Diego school kitchens. So are soft drinks.

And nachos. Pam Juarez says students used to love to buy nachos, and pile 'em high with cheese.

Suarez: Yeah, it's one of the biggest things that they miss, and they let us know about it all the time. And what do you tell 'em? Sorry, call Arnold. Ha, ha, ha. It's state and federal regulations that we have to abide by.

California has some of the nation's strictest standards on school food. In the last few years, the state has adopted new rules limiting fat content, sugar, and overall calories.

Gary Petill says school-based food service is going through a big transformation.

Petill: We're trying to change the way we buy from the industry a little bit, rather than let the industry dictate to us. And we're actually searching for healthier companies, that we can actually purchase foods from, and I think you'll see a change in that throughout the country.

That could mean veggie burgers will be on the menu soon.

But for now, San Diego kids are having a tough enough time learning to live without nachos, fries, and Coca-Cola. At least during school hours.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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