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Melissa Maino of Hamburg remembers it very clearly, though it happened two years ago.

Standing in the middle school lunch line. Staring down at her plate of grayish ravioli. Blurting out, "God, it looks like Alpo." And watching as the entire lunch line took up the tray-banging chant "Al-po! Al-po! Al-po!"

The dish, offered at a local Catholic school that shall remain nameless, was never served again.

Such is the power of the student body. Especially when it's hungry, disgusted and used to speaking its mind.

"Students years ago weren't as vocal," says Vi Seaner, who has logged nearly 20 years as food service director at the Ken-Ton Union Free School District.

"Now? Boy, they tell you."

With two weeks to go before classes begin, Mrs. Seaner and her colleagues across Erie and Niagara counties are poised to fire up their ovens and answer the inevitable question from students and parents alike: "What's for lunch?"

Well? What is?

At the end of the '90s, just about anything a student -- meat-eating or vegetarian -- could want.

And, while pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers still reign, rice, pasta, salads and seafood dishes are starting to show up on more trays than ever before.

A check of local school districts turns up these lunch-time trends:

The Clarence Central School District now offers 100 percent juice drinks, skim milk, low-fat cheeses, vegetarian entrees and taco-burrito bars.

Orchard Park is also pushing lower-fat items, which include Tex-Mex dishes, entrees made with ground turkey instead of beef, and more rice and pasta-based foods.

The Ken-Ton schools now regularly offer nine entree choices each day, including a deli-sandwich bar, and pizza made with no pepperoni and low-fat cheese. Got milk? And how: whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim and low-fat chocolate.

Williamsville schools are bringing back last year's free serving of the "Pasta of the Day," new quesadillas, 16-ounce flavored milks, pretzel nuggets and a fresh-baked cookie line.

Buffalo is trying a "team-nutrition" approach, where classes, cafeteria workers and community events all urge kids to try more grains, vegetables and new fruits, like kiwi.

"A lot of us had just antiquated menus a few years ago," concedes Rick Mancuso, business administrator for the Clarence schools.

While curriculum and facilities get reviewed quite a bit, he said, "the school menu is one of these things that doesn't get a lot of looks."

But midway through the '90s, theirs did. The district spent more than $100,000 in renovating its kitchens, retooling its menus and upping its standards.

"We got very specific, " says Mancuso. "We asked for applesauce to be used in baking, instead of oil. We asked for a chicken nugget that is 80 to 90 percent meat, not 60. We said low-fat cheese, not regular. Ground turkey, not beef. Baked french fries, not fried ones."

The result? At Clarence, and at other area schools that made similar changes, kids responded favorably.

"They're not quite asking for tofu yet," smiles Bridget O'Bryant-Wood, director of Food Services for the 80 Buffalo public schools.

"But things like the kiwi and the yogurt, which we're bringing back for a second year, once they tried it, they asked for it again and again."

Mrs. Seaner approves. "Kids want choice. They want new things, healthy things. Maybe they'll pass up fresh fruit or still pick up chocolate
milk. But we sell a lot of veggie burgers, and even at the elementary level, there's been an increase in skim milk buying. Even there we see (the kids) being very conscientious about their choices."

All of which has forced the food service industry to rethink not just the meals it offers, but also how it offers those meals.

"This is not simply 'school food' any more," explains Peter Ciotta, senior manager of media and creative strategies for Rich Products, which last year put together a round table of food-service managers and school-district representatives to rethink "the total school lunch dining experience."

How was presentation? Did lunch-line workers seem proud of their work and the product? Did kids feel free to ask questions? All of this, he says, matters hugely in a decade that has seen students become increasingly shrewd and vocal about all their choices -- food included.

That means not just vegetable entrees and healthier foods, but fancier twists on old ones: pizza has become stuffed-crust; subs now include chicken-finger-with-bleu cheese; the chips selection must include nachos with cheese and hot peppers.

Too much? Maybe in the eyes of Depression-era parents who ate what they got, and gratefully.

But that was then, say cafeteria managers. This is now. And the more you can entice students to stick around school and eat, the better.

"The complexity of tastes among students has changed a great deal," agrees Jim McHugh, whose Personal Touch Food Service is part of the Rich Products group, and provides for six private schools and the Clarence, Iroquois, Orchard Park, Eden, and Cheektowaga school districts.

"Kids today think nothing of asking 'What's that?' and they're much more aware of fat and calories." And much more willing to weigh in with opinions.

At Sweet Home High, senior and future urban planner Jacob Pastwik cheerfully gives his school high marks for paying attention to all those things.

"I always eat (the school food), he says. "About 80 percent of the time, it's great. They really put an awful lot of food on your tray. I mean, it's actually heavy at times."

The rest of the time, however, he isn't certain what's on the plate. "It reminds me of that Stove Top stuffing ad, where they didn't know what they ate except for the Stove Top."

Melissa Maino, now a sophomore at Hamburg Senior High, acknowledges her school's shift toward healthier food, but admits she still opts for pizza most of the time.

"At least it's not cold or three weeks old," she says. "They have a lot of selections. I know school food is stereotyped as bad, but ours isn't."

And at Williamsville North?

"I tried it a few days last year, and it was . . . OK," says junior Kristen Cassetta, after some thought. "I don't really remember it."

And at Mount Mercy Academy?

"I wouldn't know," admits sophomore Kim Whitlam. "I always bring my lunch. I've had too much nasty school food."

Even McHugh's kids, who attend St. Andrew's Country Day School and Nardin Academy, are a hard sell. School lunch? Nah. They want stacks of crackers, lunchmeat and cheese, cookies and a juice drink.

"They want those, what are they, those Lunchables things, that are about two or three dollars a piece? My wife told me that," says McHugh. "I just laughed."

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