The staff of the brand new Payson High School cafeteria is looking for a few hungry teens.
Actually, what the staff wants to do is expand their offerings, but they need to increase the number of students who eat there to do it.
The PHS cafeteria, totally built and funded by the state's School Facilities Board, opened for business Jan. 5, the first day after Christmas vacation. It is located in a new free-standing building near the center of campus.
Because PHS is an open campus, the new cafeteria is fairly small. The vast majority of the school's 900 students head to the fast-food restaurants for lunch.
But about 135 students are eating on campus, and the food is getting rave reviews.
"It's so much better with the new cafeteria," supervisor Julie Bolet said. "It's hot, it's fresh, it's eye appealing, and the count has gone up steadily."
Especially noteworthy are the large salads that are offered as entrees every day.
"The salads go real big," PUSD Food Service Supervisor Dan Bowditch said.
They include a chicken fajita salad, an oriental chicken salad, a chef's salad, a tuna salad, a spinach salad, a seafood crab salad, and a veggie salad.
"They're very, very big," Bolet said. "They're colorful. The teachers seem to love them."
The salads and the rest of the cafeteria offerings are part of a nutritional menu concept introduced into PUSD schools this year.
"Last March, an article appeared in The Arizona Republic saying that schools are failing nutritionally," Bowditch said.
Among the revelations in that article:
"According to recent state audits, 55 percent of Arizona schools do not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for nutrients over a week's time. USDA standards spell out how much fat, calories, sodium, fiber and carbohydrates meals are allowed.
"I've been here two years," Bowditch said. "I looked at our menus and had some experts look at them, and our menus were very heavy in fat content. We were probably in that group of schools that were failing nutritionally. The (federal government) has not made new menus mandatory, but it's coming. So I decided to go with the new menus this year."
One day last week, the three entrees at the new PHS cafeteria were chicken fajita salad, beef fajitas and a deli sub.
"The new menus I've taken so much heat over require an entree, two sides and milk," Bowditch said. "We aim for a certain level of calories, of vitamins A and C, protein, iron and calcium. The other big issue is we have to be within a fat range for saturated fats and total fats per calorie ..."
When students go through the PHS lunch line, they select an entree and two of three sides -- such as Mexicorn, bananas or peaches -- and they also have to take milk.
"Some kids say, ‘I'm just going to throw it away,'" Bowditch said. "I can't help that. They've got to take it on their tray because the state says you've got to have a balanced meal. I can't make them eat it.
"One of the real struggles with menus is that kids like junk food today, so when you see bananas and apples and stuff going into the trash by the handful, there's nothing I can do about it but I have to offer it to them," he said.
Fortunately, student perceptions and attitudes are already beginning to change. Besides the salads, several items on the PHS menu are getting rave reviews.
"The fajitas have gone over very well," Bolet said. "We use a very good grade of Tyson chicken, and they're a big hit. We're doing homemade potato salad and pasta salad instead of french fries and the kids love it."
"We do a 5-inch personal pan pizza that's been huge," Bowditch said.
But the PHS cafeteria still has a lot of untapped potential, including a walk-up window where students could buy meals to eat outside on campus -- if Bowditch could afford to operate it.
"I need another person to operate the window, but to be able to afford that I've got to sell more meals," he said.
Bowditch also would like to introduce a line of a la carte items.
"That way a kid could get a sub for 75 cents and milk for a quarter," he said. "That's a buck for a pretty good meal, but we need to have the people here to do that and right now, I can't afford it."
To maximize the potential of the school lunch program, Bowditch would like to see more parents apply for free or reduced meals for their children.
"What I don't think parents understand is the quality of meal they can get for the price," he said.
"There are a lot of parents out there that could qualify for free or reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Program."
Full price for lunch at PHS is $2 for adults and $1.50 for students. Reduced lunches are 40 cents. To apply, parents need to fill out a state-approved application, with all information held in strictest confidence.
"The applications come to my office, I have software that determines the parameters of free and reduced lunches, and then they'll get a letter from me saying your kids get free lunches, or reduced, or you didn't qualify," Bowditch said.
Not only is the nutritional content better, but the savings can be substantial compared to fast food lunches.
"I had a parent call me up not long ago, and she said she was sending $30 a week with two kids to eat uptown," Bowditch said. "Well, she might qualify for free lunches. She might qualify for reduced lunches. There's a big difference between $3 a day and 40 cents a day."
Parents can qualify for the lunch program any time during the school year. Call Bowditch at (928) 472-5703 or have your student pick up an application in your school office or at one of the district's five cafeterias.
"We need more kids to eat at all our cafeterias," Bowditch said. "Volume helps us make ends meet."