LANCASTER -- Robert Terrazas has strong opinions about the cafeteria food at CLC-Tech, an alternative school run by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office.
“Most of the time it’s gross,” said Terrazas, 17, frowning. “It’s always cold cereal in the morning with some kind of cracker, and every Friday there’s this pepperoni pizza that’s all greasy.
“We’re here, today, trying to change that.”
Terrazas was one of eight students whose good behavior and grades earned a trip to Lancaster Thursday to attend the Partners in Nutrition Cooperative Food Show, a trade show for school cafeteria vendors and buyers.
Two KCSOS food service administrators drove students from The Kelly F. Blanton Student Education Center, which includes CLC-Tech, to the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds for a day of taste testing. Students were armed with scorecards as they wandered through more than 28,000 square feet of booths sampling offerings as varied as falafel, orange chicken and gourmet pastries.
“This isn’t bad,” said a pleasantly surprised George Odom, 17, munching a Bosco’s Pizza Co. bread stick stuffed with cheese. “It’s good, actually. Better than what we have at school.”
Behind the booth, Bosco’s sales representative Armond Saltron puffed his chest with pride and tried to entice Odom’s companions.
“That’s real Wisconsin cheese,” he said. “This is the kind of cheese other cheeses are jealous about.”
Nearby, 16-year-old Skye Morin was positively swooning over cucumber slices sprinkled with chili lime seasoning from Rodelle Inc.
“I like this. I really like this,” she said. “And it’s so easy.”
With about 130 vendors, the PINCO Food Show is the second largest and only school-managed school food purchasing co-op in California. Thirty-nine school districts are members.
PINCO districts served 26,013,199 lunches last year.
Seasoning was a big trend at Thursday’s show, where food manufacturers were scrambling to meet new, stricter U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for healthy fare in schools.
Cafeterias are under a mandate to serve more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium.
That means school cooks have to find alternatives to salt.
John Chavolla, director of food services for the Delano Joint Union High School District, said that’s frustrating.
“I don’t like the new guidelines, honestly, because it’s hard to get kids to eat that stuff if there’s no flavor in it. But we have to comply, so we just have to find other ways to put flavor in the food,” he said as he wandered the show’s aisles with colleagues from a food purchasing co-op.
Josh Rogers, director of nutrition services for the Greenfield Union School District, said it’s hard to balance nutrition with taste.
“Sometimes what I like, and what complies with the rules, is not what the kids like,” he said. “But if you stick with the basics, like chicken and beef, usually you’re OK.”
Marilou Onaindia, nutrition services manager for the Panama Buena Vista Union School District, was more optimistic, applauding the wealth of new products introduced at the annual show.
“I’m really excited about it because there are so many new things I’ve seen here today that are not only in compliance but quite tasty,” she said.
Children are more open to healthy eating than people realize, Onaindia said, noting the success of salad bars at Panama’s five junior highs.
“They love them,” she said. “The younger kids are asking for them.”
Still, Onaindia conceded the new rules will mean more work for schools, with fewer processed foods and a lot more cooking from scratch.
“It’s OK,” she said. “We’ll just have to add more labor.”
Vendors who know their market hope to trick children into eating right without realizing it.
Gourmet Treats, based in Torrance, had brownies, banana bread and lemon cake made from whole grains, but you wouldn’t know that by looks or taste.
“We worked hard on that,” said operations director Alyza Jinnah.
Better the students don’t know, he said with a mischievous smile.
On the other side of the pavilion, Apple & Eve Fruitables hawked 100-percent juice boxes that were actually more vegetable than fruit, but the veggies weren’t the marquee item on the packaging.
The Bakersfield students were none the wiser and gave the drinks a thumbs up.
Mason Hollingsworth, food service manager for KCSOS, trailed his students, discreetly taking note of their decisions to pause at some booths and pass others by.
“It’s great to have the students down here for feedback,” he said. “These new guidelines are all fine, but if the students won’t eat any of it, it doesn’t really matter.”