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A lunch is served to a student every 6 to 7 seconds
These Joshua Cowell students are among between 14,000 and 15,000 Manteca Unified School District students served lunch each day. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Manteca Unified has redefined “fast food” and what it is like to eat cafeteria food.

The school district was shifting to healthier food in their cafeterias long before student nutrition became a target of concerned parents, medical experts, and politicians.

And they have done it with a number of goals in mind:

•Making sure students learn about nutrition and are given healthy choices.

•Working to make meals appealing to a point students want to select healthy food

•Substantially reducing the calories of cafeteria meals of olden days - they are down to an average of 650 calories now.

•Making nutritional services self-supporting, which it is.

“We are a partner in education,” noted Patty Page who serves as director of nutritional services for Manteca Unified.

Page said that students who are hungry or get sleepy or hyper due to improper nutrition are not as effective as they can be at learning.

The partnership with teaching goes beyond basic nutrition. Nutritional services stepped up and covered the cost of the heart lab for elementary students when budget cuts eliminated funding.

There is also a different attitude than many adults may have experienced during their school days. Instead of viewing students as a captive audience, Manteca Unified treats them as customers that they have to win over.

And that is done from coming up with tasty meals right down to presentation.

“Presentation is big for us,” Page said. “The more appealing you make a meal the more likely someone is going to enjoy it.”

Page oversees an operation that serves between 14,000 and 15,000 students a day. There are five central elementary kitchens that supply three to five elementary cafeterias. That is in addition to five high school kitchens. Each kitchen does its own ordering further allowing the tailoring of meals to meet the demand of each school

More than 140 workers whip up daily meals within three to four hours. All have food handling certification to assure the cleanest and healthiest conditions.

Each cafeteria serves a student every 6 to 7 seconds.

Page started in school food services 20 years ago when she was seeking a part-time job when her daughter started going to school. That first gig was as a dishwasher. She has since worked every job in cafeteria service before being appointed to head up Manteca Unified’s nutritional services.

Along the way she has married practical experience with college-level nutritional education.

“We have a tremendous staff that goes out of their way to make our food service a success,” Page said.

Page noted cafeteria staff has repeatedly come up with some of the best suggestions in meal planning.

“They all care immensely about what they are doing,” Page said.

Page noted that school lunch - as well as breakfast- is often times the best meals that many children have during the course of a week due to family financial considerations. She pointed out the free and reduced lunch programs can be applied for at any time during the year.

“Financial situations change,” she said. “Some people think you can only apply for it at the start of the school year.”

Page said she’d like to see more teachers opt for cafeteria dining. She believes it is a matter of proper marketing which includes complete disclosure of contents including calories for each offering.

That is something that she also believes students want as well.