- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

School lunches have transformed from monotonous meat loaf and mashed potatoes into an international medley of chicken chow mein and bean burritos.

Nachos, tacos, fried rice, stir-fried vegetables and even couscous, the North African pasta, are joining traditional items like the hot dog on school lunch menus around the nation.

School food service directors say two trends are fueling the rise in ethnic foods. There has been an influx of Asian and Latin American immigrants who have brought their own tastes and preferences, and families are eating out more, thus exposing children to a greater variety of foods.

"I think we're going to see the explosion of new meal options for children that are culturally sensitive and will provide the diversity of the many, many representations of culture that we have in this country," said Shirley Watkins, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

"Schools, even in communities where you would least expect, are seeing an influx of students from other areas."

Jody Houston, food services director for the Corpus Christi Independent School District, has long served Mexican foods like burritos in the South Texas district, which is about 70 percent Hispanic.

But she recently added some Chinese foods, including egg rolls and stir-fried vegetables, because students seem to enjoy it.

"I think variety is important now because students get more variety at home," Miss Houston said. "I believe students' tastes are becoming more sophisticated."

Donna Wittrock keeps an eye on the malls to see where students hang out.

"We try to follow the trends in the restaurant and the fast-food business," said Miss Wittrock, executive director of food and nutrition services for Denver public schools. "As we see more ethnic diversity of the foods, we try to incorporate those" additions like rice bowls, chop suey, tamales and taquitos, a crispy wrap with filling.

Of course, long-standing favorites aren't going anywhere.

During a recent lunch at Bailey's Elementary, a Fairfax County, Va., school where students come from 45 countries and speak 20 languages, the overwhelming choice across races and ethnicities was that all-American standard, the hot dog.

Cook Esmeralda Martinez prepared 720 hot dogs and 40 chalupas, a Tex-Mex creation resembling a Mexican pizza that ran a distant second that day to the hot dog.

First-grader Jenny Le said her school serves some Vietnamese food like her mother makes, such as peas and rice. But the giggly 6-year-old gobbled her hot dog and named pizza and spaghetti as lunch favorites.

Even hot dogs are prepared to accommodate students' religious needs. Bailey's serves turkey hot dogs partly because they're low-fat, but also because many students are Muslim and do not eat pork. In the lunch line, small pink signs with pigs sketched on them signify items containing pork.

Maria Gilleni, a second-grader from Pakistan who wore a traditional Muslim scarf around her head, shunned even the turkey version. "I don't like it," she said. She opted instead for an apple and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Lunch changes are apparent not only in types of foods but also in flavors.

"I've heard this from other food service directors, too, that the spice level has really increased," said Phyllis Griffith, president of the American School Food Service Association and food service director for Columbus Public Schools in Ohio.

Miss Griffith often offers salsa with nachos as a side to bland foods.

"Our students like hot sauce to add to menu items," she said. "We have served a spicy chicken wing product that is too hot for me, but students enjoy it very much."

Fairfax County highlights menu items from one or two countries each month. Couscous is one recent addition. The gradual introduction of foods gives students a chance to get acclimated.

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