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Variety is the Spice of Lunch at This Pennsylvania School

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Upper Darby, Pa--One of the most difficult decisions that students at Upper Darby High School have to make on an average school day may be what to have for lunch.

In the cafeteria, students at this suburban-Philadelphia school have a myriad of choices. They can have the lasagna, one of the two featured pastas of the day, for $1.15. Or they can perhaps try the day's platter, which today contains baked flounder, rice, and broccoli, for $2.25.

This multiple-choice school lunch program, which has been managed by ara Services Inc. for more than a dozen years, is a typical example of the type of enticements some food-management companies and district-operated programs are offering up to increase student participation.

At Upper Darby, where more than 70 percent of the school's approximately 2,500 students buy lunch daily, "variety" and "student choice" are the key buzzwords.

The lunchroom, which was designed by the district and ara, resembles a shopping-mall "food court." There are several short cafeteria lines, each clearly marked by signs that advertise their offerings. And students, as they wait in line to pay for their meals, can watch the Oscar-nominated film "Field of Dreams" from one of the six video monitors in the lunchroom.

From a small, pink kiosk, students can buy slices of made-from-scratch pizza. An identical kiosk across the aisle sells deli sandwiches. And across the room, at the kiosk with the longest line, students can buy cinnamon buns, hand-dipped ice-cream cones, and other sweets.

Unlike most school districts, Upper Darby is not part of the federal school-lunch program, which subsidizes all lunches at participating schools and provides additional funds to cover the cost of the free and reduced-price meals offered to poor students. School officials say they decided to leave the program in the early 1980's, when federal budget cuts made the program financially less attractive for many schools.

Because the district is exempt from federal guidelines that require it to offer certain amounts and types of food daily in order to receive reimbursements, the entire program is a la carte, and students pay only for the food they eat. As a result, school officials, cafeteria workers, and teachers maintain, the amount of food students waste has been reduced dramatically.

The a la carte arrangement also means that foods less popular with students, such as a side dish of vegetables, are not offered daily. "People come in here and say, 'You don't serve vegetables,"' remarks Angelo Nicolaou, an ara employee who is food-service manager here. "But kids don't eat it."

Timothy H. Daniels, the assistant superintendent for business affairs, says the district has received fewcomplaints about the quality or price of school lunches. He also conveys there were few complaints when the district decided to leave the federal lunch program. Fewer than 10 percent of the district's students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, he says.

In addition to increasing participation, ara has been able to reduce the district's costs by putting the food-service workers on its payroll. Ruth Buzzelli, shop steward for the union representing those workers, said their pay was protected and older workers were allowed to keep their district benefits, including pensions. But newer hires have an inferior medical plan and are not covered by a pension plan, she said.

Despite the variety of choices available to the students here, most of them give the food a mixed review.

"A lot of people say that it's not very good, but I disagree," says Danielle Condron, an 11th grader. "The pizza is good, but expensive."

"It's institutional food," counters Chris Falcone, also an 11th-grade student, with a shrug. "What can you do?"

But his friend, Jon Fiedler, another junior, says this: "They really try here and that's good."

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