Of all the school memories that alumni later recount with a nostalgic fondness, their dining experiences in the cafeteria traditionally haven’t ranked high among them. Anecdotes of mystery-meat casseroles, ossified sandwiches, mushy vegetables and cookie-cutter pizza squares with the consistency of cardboard, have proliferated for generations.
As students became old enough to drive, many of them fled the campus during meal periods for more appetizing fare in close proximity. But the school cafeteria of today bears little resemblance to the one that served up an equitable mix of horror and humor from past generations.
The cafeteria has, over the years, morphed into a highly competitive venue offering students an array of dining options including ethnic selections, food bars, wellness options, locally grown fare and even takeout services for time-pressed students.
In between, the cafeteria has weathered onslaughts from nutritional advocates, torrid competition from the retail restaurant sector, convenience stores and coffee chains, as well as inadvertently serving up an abundance of material for comedians and monologues for TV talk show hosts.
But that was then, and this is now.
Both noncommercial contractors and self-operated districts have unveiled sophisticated food programs that dispel antiquated myths about the culinary pedigree of school cafeterias. They also have installed nutritional and wellness programs to help silence critics, in many cases exceeding federal mandates on nutritional guidelines.
According to estimates, about 55 million students in the United States eat lunch in school cafeterias, and just over half of that figure participate in the National School Lunch Program.
“What’s happened is school foodservice has become much more exciting than it was years ago,” says Cathy Schlosberg, vice president of marketing and strategic development for Aramark  Education, which feeds roughly 400 districts in the K-12 arena. The unit of the Philadelphia-based contractor plates about 2.8 million meals per day.
“Students who historically have not dined with us are coming back to the cafeteria,” she says. “But several years ago we undertook a tremendous amount of research for the teens and ‘tweens’ and found out what appeals to them.”
The result was the development of a series of dining “brands” spearheaded by Aramark’s flagship UBU Lounge, which currently is in some 300 high schools. Each UBU Lounge offers Asian, Mexican and Italian menu items, among other ethnic selections, and boast a lively decor replete with graphically appealing images, new packaging, music and collateral materials as well as revamped server and staff uniforms.
“We asked a lot of our partners and key manufacturers to help develop recipe items that are in tune with the students’ tastes,” says Michael Pursell, associate vice president of marketing for Aramark Education. “Kids feel comfortable at QSR and fast-casual concepts, so our challenge was how to develop items like those, make them taste great and ensure they’re nutritionally sound to meet USDA guidelines.”
To bring that retail mind-set to the lower grade levels and less-mature palates, Aramark unveiled its One World Café for the elementary grades and its “12 Spot” for the middle schools. Aramark augmented its school menu revamp with a wellness program forged around the message “Treat Yourself Right.”
“The reality is that kids want to eat what they see in the mall. They also want to eat in an atmosphere that makes them feel comfortable,” says Quinn, whose division—a unit of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass  Group North America—services some 4,200 schools.
Chartwells School Dining Services  features 12 proprietary concepts under such brands as Casa Amigos and Asian Nation, which adopt a turnkey approach to student dining under its “Balanced Choices” banner. The menu is fused with educational tools to help students make informed choices and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
“We also offer more portable foods like cut-up vegetables and dips so they can take it back to their desks,” Quinn says. “Our wellness and nutrition programs, which we launched in 2004 under the label ‘Eat, Learn, Live,’ have affected every menu item we have. For example, pizza remains our most popular menu item, but now we make it with whole-grain crust, and our chicken items have zero trans fats.”
Quinn says that the division recently hired a director of nutrition who is focused solely on the school accounts and also grafted the Balanced Choices component to its breakfast program.
Although Congress mandated school districts across the country to implement a wellness program by the 2005-2006 academic year, their breakfast, lunch and, in particular, vending machine offerings often have come under criticism from advocacy groups such as the Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy for CSPI, says the group began to focus on how to bolster the nutrition of school meals in the mid-1990s. Since then, schools have made good progress in the area, she says, but there’s still work to be done.
“The amount of saturated fat and cholesterol has gone down and the consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased,” she says. “That’s a good thing. But there’s still the heavy marketing influence from places like McDonald’s  and Burger King .”
Meanwhile, as child obesity remains a problem, many states like California have passed legislation that sets limits on fat and sugar content in items served in cafeterias and enacted bans on certain types of junk food sold in school vending machines.
For example, items like pizza, burritos, pasta and sandwiches must contain no more than 4 grams of fat for every 100 calories, with a total of no more than 400 calories.
Although noncommercial operators now account for about 25 percent of school foodservice across the country, many of those districts that are self-operated have kept pace with their contract competitors in encouraging students to eat on campus by offering diverse and more enticing fare.
“We all need to change with the times and the trends,” says Mary Hill, executive director of foodservice for the Jackson, Miss., public school system and the 2007-2008 president of the School Nutrition Association. “We treat [students] with a customer attitude as opposed to seeing them as students. What they want now is very different from what they wanted back when I was in school.”
Although self-operating districts often lack the expansive budgets and human resources of Aramark and Chartwells, Hill has successfully deployed programs that are both retail- and nutrition-oriented throughout Jackson’s 60 school sites, which serve roughly 40,000 meals per day.
“I always tell my people that training, especially in nutrition, is so important now,” she says. “You need to look at what you’re serving—especially from a health and nutrition standpoint—but you have to keep in mind what they’re really going to eat.
“If you look at the student populations across the country, there’s more diversity, and that has to be reflected in the menu. We don’t have as much [diversity] as in New York, for example, but we still do things like celebrate the Chinese New Year with that type of food. Many times the students want foods that they can’t necessarily get at home.”
Hill says the wellness program in the Jackson schools resulted from input of community leaders, nutritionists, doctors and lawyers. The district analyzed sodium and sugar contents throughout the menu, increased the frequency of fruits and vegetables, and introduced whole grains.
“Sure it costs a little more to eat healthy, and maybe we’re not all the way there yet, but the steps are in place,” Hill says. “[Students] are eating in more and that’s a good thing.”