Here's some good news for students who are dreading the first day of school Sept. 7: There will be pizza for lunch.
Gooey, messy, wonderful triangles of dough, topped with cheese or pepperoni.
The school system's 340 food workers intend to make the meal a nutritious one with low-fat mozzarella on the pizza, fresh green beans and juice-packed pear chunks, the perfect fuels for getting over the vacation blues -- and through the rest of the day.
"For some of them, that is the best food they are going to have," said Karen Olsen, the Harford school system's registered dietitian. She led a three-day "Healthier Ways to Get Cooking" workshop for school food managers and cooks last week at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air.
The mission to present healthy eating options to the county's 37,000 students is not new. The school cooks already bake their french fries, and other foods, instead of frying them and provide fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Also, starting this year, 1
percent milk will be available.
But in the next couple of years, there will be an even greater emphasis on subtracting fat, sodium and cholesterol from school lunches, in line with proposed federal regulations.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the stricter rules, which are expected to be phased into school districts by 1998. The new rules call for reducing the overall fat content in lunches to 30 percent of calories and the saturated fat content to 10 percent.
The rules still allow hamburgers and pizzas -- but with lower-fat ingredients. And the new nutritional standards can be met over a week rather than each day.
"I think we're already doing it," said Ellen Solomon, food services manager at Bel Air High School.
"We've really cut out a lot," said Betty Angelucci, Aberdeen High's food manager. For example, the staff now uses garlic powder instead of garlic salt to flavor foods, she said.
"Gradual is the key word here," Ms. Olsen told workshop participants. "What will happen if we make radical changes? The kids won't eat."
Ms. Olsen acknowledged that much of the information she presented to the 16 food workers in the class may have been familiar, but said she hoped "to clear up some diet misconceptions that are out there, so when teen-agers and little ones come to you, or their parents, you'll be able to explain [the dietary guidelines] to them."
The course included personal nutrition goals, tests, homework and hands-on preparation of foods, such as low-fat spaghetti sauce with ground turkey and potato salad with yogurt.
"We'll try out recipes, judge them and see if they work," Ms. Olsen said.
She suggested that the food workers may want to have taste tests for students in their own schools.
Eventually, all of the county's 14 food managers and 14 cooks must complete the Maryland State Department of Education workshop, Ms. Olsen said.
Ms. Olsen, who began working for the school system in December, is the food services department's first registered dietitian.
She also teaches at Harford Community College.
"I think it is another component of improving our staff and the resources available to our customers," said Archie C. McDonald, supervisor of food services.
Mr. McDonald works with Ms. Olsen and other staff members in planning the school lunches and breakfasts. This year, lunches cost $1.30 in elementary schools and $1.40 in middle and high schools. Breakfasts are $1.05 in all schools.
The meal revenues help finance the food department's $5.8 million budget, which is not included in the school system's operating budget. "The money needs to be generated on our own," Mr. McDonald said.
The department also gets federal and state money to cover salaries, wages, supplies, maintenance, additional kitchen equipment and food purchases.
The food workers know there are items the students favor -- and also those they dislike. At the workshop, they discussed trail mix, a raisin, nut and cereal combo.
"They just throw it at each other," one cook said.
Another cook told of a custodian pulling apples out of a drop ceiling where students had hidden them. And there were tales of students who flushed orange segments down the school toilets last year.
"It's a challenge at times," Ms. Olsen said, citing the mushy vs. crisp methods of cooking vegetables. "You're going to find those that like it one way and others who like it the other way."
That's why a variety of foods should be offered, she stressed.
September's menu includes a range of food, from tacos to hot turkey sandwiches to steak subs.
And for those students who somehow manage to make it through the first week of school, there will something to look forward to on Friday, Sept. 9: chicken nuggets -- baked, not fried.