Lunchtime at Goleta Valley Junior High starts at 12:07. Within 28 minutes, 700 students have to be "fed" before returning to classes. The scene is pandemonium. Students are either standing in lines, clustered in small bands, or racing around as if lost. The lunch tables are folded and stacked with their accompanying chairs; students eat outside while standing up (a food fight a couple years ago resulted in the administration's removing any opportunity for students to sit down and eat together).
The cool stainless tubular slides that once carried plastic trays of hot food dished out by hair-netted women in starched white uniforms remain. But no milk machines squirt columns of regular or chocolate milk; no bottom-heated tables keep mashed potatoes or lasagna warm; no fishcakes wait in stacks; no coleslaw sits at the ready; no clam chowder simmers, ready to be ladled into waiting bowls.
The heating table's large pans are now filled with prepackaged barbecued beef sandwiches and cheeseburgers prepared at anonymous kitchens, miles away, with ingredients from U.S. government commodities programs. On the wall a faded sign reads, "Fruits and vegetables are always in season. Whether they're fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, they all count." The cardboard "No pizza today" sign brings audible sighs of disappointment.
A salad bar graces one corner of the room, laden with shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheese, pickles, peppers, yogurt, granola, peanuts, and apple and orange pieces. Another station is stacked with Italian subs, ham sandwiches, and celery pieces with containers of peanut butter. With a pair of plastic tongs, the woman who's in charge of the salad bar makes a futile attempt to conceal the brown lettuce leaves. She asks if I'm an inspector, then apologizes for the condition of the lettuce. She tells me that it's the last day before the break and that they're trying to "get rid of" the old product.
The longest lines of students lead to two wire mesh-covered windows outside the building, where attendants dispense nachos — orange gooey imitation cheese squirted from a machine onto chips. Every purchased item is placed in a thick cardboard tray. I watch as students pay for their food, then immediately toss the trays, foil wrappers, napkins, and cans into rapidly filling trash barrels.