A Sharpstein Elementary School student eyes her lunch tray of food while leaving the cafeteria for lunch outside on the playground.
WALLA WALLA - On any given day at Walla Walla Public Schools, children who eat lunch from their school's cafeteria get an assortment of choices.
It begins with a walk past the fruit and salad bar, which offers leafy greens, fresh fruits and vegetables, chilled beans (like garbanzo or red kidney), cottage cheese and even peperoncinis or diced jalapeo.
Then come the hot entrees, typically five to choose from, and including Chef's Choice that are offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The choices children make are often as varied as their own personalities.
On a recent day at Edison Elementary, the chicken on a bun entree emerged as the favorite among several students.
Nine-year-old Ashley Martinez added a helping of salad to her tray along with the chicken on a bun, which was a breaded chicken patty on a whole grain bun. Martinez also made sure to grab one of the cookies offered for the day.
"I got junk food, but I got healthy stuff too," she said.
Martinez had an overall positive assessment of her school's lunches. "It's really good," she said about her sandwich.
Around her, classmates had either picked the chicken on a bun or the crunchy taco.
Daniel Perez, 9, had finished most of his taco and a helping of salad. He said one of his favorite items was a Chef's Choice meal, offered about once a month, called a Cheese Zombie. It is essentially a baked cheese sandwich with tomato soup for dipping.
"Cheese zombies are awesome," he said. His friends at the table all agreed.
The "offer versus serve" model of handling school nutrition is relatively new, but has proven popular as a way to ensure children are being offered things they'll eat, versus being served things that will end up in the trash.
Food Services Director Pam Milleson said the district has conducted "plate waste" studies where children are served a specific meal one day, and given choices another. Waste from each day is weighed and compared.
Consistently, children waste about three time more food when they are served, versus when they are given a choice of what and how much to take.
"It always comes out about the same," Milleson said of the results.
"It's not that the kids are eating it, it's that it's on their tray," she said of handing them a tray with what they're expected to eat. When given a choice, the result is more kids eating and less food in the trash.
"The kids are actually eating what they take," she said. "It's a whole lot less waste."
But some argue more could be done to ensure children are getting not just choices, but variety in their daily meals.
"There's a difference between variety and choice," said Jim Russo, a bio-chemistry professor at Whitman College who chaired a task force that helped revise Walla Walla Public Schools nutrition and physical fitness policy in 2006.
Russo argues that choice doesn't ensure variety, if kids are still able to choose the same things every day.
"I don't think giving more choices is necessarily better," he said. "Fewer choices promoted in different ways might be more effective and result in kids trying a wider variety of foods."
Russo said programs like Farm to School encourage business between local produce providers and districts, while offering more nutrition education in schools. Such programs could help children learn about how food is grown, and result in them making better choices.
Milleson felt not enough credit is given to kids who already make good choices.
"Kids have a natural biological way of eating, and a lot of times they eat what they need," she said.
Along those same lines, Russo said children who are hungry will eat what is offered. So he sees the benefit of cutting back on choices, or incorporating more items that are cooked in-house, versus heavily processed or precooked foods.
"If kids are hungry, they'll eat," he said.
He said placing recess before lunch, instead of immediately after, may be another way to get children to try different foods.
In Walla Walla, currently just second-grade students at Berney Elementary hold recess first. Supporters of the model say children don't rush through lunch, and end up eating more, if they play first.
Russo said such small changes could help lead to children eating better.
So what about children who choose a hamburger or nuggets every day?
Milleson doesn't necessarily see it as a bad thing. A hamburger that has been steam-cooked, in a whole grain bun, provides two food servings.
"I'd rather have calories and nutrients in that kid to get them through their afternoon classes," she said.
Milleson also felt that parents who have concerns about their child eating the same things every day should work with the schools, rather than expect schools to address it.
"We can't be parents," she said. "We want to expose them and teach them, but it takes that partnership."
Russo said he respects the work of Food Services employees who prepare food for hundreds of children each day. He noted the fresh fruits and vegetables as an example.
"If you take a look at those fresh variety bars, that takes time," he said. "And someone has to be paid to do it."
But Russo doesn't see change as the responsibility of simply the Food Services department. He felt a broader collaboration was needed, as well as more focus from the local, state and federal level.
And other proposals, like more school gardens with integrated curriculum, or the possibility of schools fundraising to improve their meals, would also require a team of supporters.
"I don't think that has to be the responsibility of just the food services," he added. "It needs to involve the entire district."