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    'Do you want fries with that?'

    That's what Pinellas students will hear under a district proposal that bumps the fatty snack to a la carte.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001


    For calorie-craving teenagers, french fries are the perfect meal. They're portable, salty, greasy, crispy and oh-so-tasty.

    photo
    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    The three fryers used by Lakewood High's Gloria Cason, known as "the fries lady," rarely get a rest.
    Starting this fall, they might be in short supply in Pinellas public school cafeterias.

    A committee of nutritionists and cafeteria managers is recommending -- gasp! -- that french fries be chopped from the full-price lunch in middle and high schools and only available a la carte at a buck for a 12-ounce cup.

    "We don't always know what's good for us," said Dawn Hall-Ladd, cafeteria manager at Pinellas Park High. "They have enough opportunity to get french fries that they don't need to get them every day in school."

    Tell that to her customers.

    "For the most part, that's the main thing of the meal," said Justin Russell, a Tarpon Springs High senior. "All you pretty much get is the main entree and then juice and milk and fries. If you were to alleviate that, then you don't really have much else."

    As a double whammy, dessert will be served two days a week, instead of five. The trimming of dessert affects elementary, middle and high schools.

    The issue is all about math.

    Government guidelines say that, when averaged over a week, only 30 percent of school lunch calories can come from fat. The last time Pinellas cafeterias were audited, the district hit just over the limit. Food services director Gray Miller wants Pinellas to do better.

    Fries are an obvious target.

    Middle and high school students who buy the full-priced lunch (which will cost $1.75 next year) can choose two fruits or vegetables -- including fries.

    In high schools, fries are fried. In many middle schools, they are baked. In elementaries, baked fries are on the menu twice a month.

    Baked fries aren't a source of angst; it's the fried ones that give district nutritionists heart palpitations.

    If the committee gets its way, fried fries won't be listed as a veggie option, but they will stay on the a la carte menu. Nutritionists and some parents hope students on limited budgets won't be able to afford a complete meal with fries on the side.

    "If I ate in a cafeteria that served tacos and french fries every day, I'd be apt to eat a lot of french fries and tacos," said Cheryl Shaver, vice chairwoman of Clearwater High School's advisory council. "I definitely think we don't need to have french fries with every entree."

    Carol Workley, cafeteria manager at Lakewood High, said her customers will have plenty of potato choices in lieu of fries, including oven-roasted red potatoes, baked tater tots and twice-baked potatoes.

    Of the 600 to 700 who buy full lunches every day, she estimates that 75 percent choose fries as one of the veggies. That is a super-size pile of fries, so many that sometimes her three fryers can't keep up.

    Usually, the committee that makes menu decisions for the district's 68,000 customers operates in relative obscurity. But this time -- when the future of fries is at stake -- Miller is going to present the proposal to high school principals.

    She'll do that May 3. She does not know when -- or who -- will make the final decision. At some point, she expects to make a similar presentation to middle school principals.

    Cafeteria gurus know they are wading into dangerous territory. Cutting back on fries could anger customers to the point of boycotting the lunch line. But it's the right thing to do, Miller says, and she thinks teenagers will scream loudly but then adjust quickly.

    "I would not expect a full-scale revolt," Miller said. "They're not disappearing entirely."

    If Sarasota County schools are a guide, Pinellas has nothing to worry about.

    Starting this year, Sarasota serves fries twice a week in middle schools and three times a week in high schools. Even though fries are no longer offered daily, food services director Beverly Girard said she has more customers this year.

    She credits food items that were added to the menus -- such as overstuffed sub sandwiches and baked pretzels -- when fries were cut back.

    "They're not as addicted to them as they used to be," Girard said.

    In Citrus, fries are available every day as part of the meal and a la carte for high school students, but only a couple of times a month for middle schoolers. In Hernando County, middle school students can get fries about twice a week, but at two of three high schools they are offered every day on the full meal.

    Pasco schools stopped serving fries daily several years ago, even deciding not to buy fryers for new schools or replace broken ones. Only two high schools have fryers.

    In Hillsborough, only oven-baked potato products are served with full lunches, but fries are available a la carte daily. About a third of middle and high schools have fryers, but Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough's director of student nutrition services, said the district is working toward adding fryers to most of the secondary campuses.

    That's because she said oven-baked fries just aren't that good.

    "I don't want to serve a poor potato product just for the sake of trying to be conservative from a dietary standpoint," Harrison said.

    Nixing fries in Pinellas isn't supposed to send a message just to student customers. The school district is trying to mold the eating habits of teachers and school staff, too.

    Pinellas food experts say they are troubled by the mixed messages teachers send to students who are supposed to be learning to make healthy, responsible eating decisions, such as the teacher who finishes a nutrition lesson and then grabs a Diet Coke and a bag of chips for lunch.

    Two St. Petersburg schools -- Sexton Elementary and Azalea Middle -- hope to start programs next year that will incorporate healthy lifestyle training in every class. For instance, students would be rewarded with carrot sticks instead of candy bars.

    "You're sending mixed messages," said Dolores McCoy, Pinellas' nutrition education specialist. "We have to set an example and eat that way, too."

    Nancy Lorenzetti, a Pinellas Park High parent, said you couldn't pay her to go through the drive-through but she loved junk food in high school. That's all part of being a teenager -- so if kids want to nosh on fries, she thinks that's okay as long as healthy items are offered, too.

    "It is a serious junk-food age," Lorenzetti said. Two of her children have graduated from high school, and "they kind of grew out of it."

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