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Let's do lunch - in the school cafeteria

Gone are the days of mess-hall style school cafeterias with bland walls, stretched white tables and lunch ladies serving nothing but hot dogs.

In case parents haven't noticed the changes, several local schools have invited them to sup with kids and choose from a variety of school lunches for themselves.The invitation comes as part of National School Lunch Week, which ended Friday in most schools, and is aimed at sweetening unpalatable perceptions about school lunch, said Hank Winawer, assistant director of child nutrition programs for the State Office of Education.

"There's an image out there that the school-lunch program is basically institutional feeding," Winawer said. "We're trying to show the public that it's not like it used to be."

Today, high schools offer a variety of balanced meals, from traditional meat and potatoes to salad bar specialties to breakfast-like lunches. Such choices are trickling down to middle and elementary schools, Winawer said.

Many lunchrooms are decorated with tablecloths and art and play music to entice children to participate in school lunches, which have been offered since 1946 nationally.

School-lunch week, themed "A World of Taste," is set up by the American School Food Service Association, which has members in all 50 states, Winawer said.

Schools serve foods ranging from "stagecoach spaghetti" in the Wild West menu to Mediterranean foods.

"We seem to be having a very good (parental) turnout," said Diana Albiston, area supervisor over child nutrition for Salt Lake City School District.

All schools in Salt Lake City are participating. The city district has stretched school-lunch week to all of October, Albiston said. She says the celebration helps parents get involved in schools and better understand school lunches.

For some, school lunches may be the only nutritious meal a child eats during the day, Winawer said.

Research indicates children are more alert, less restless and learn more easily if they have received the proper nutrition before class. Fries and a shake from fast-food restaurants don't qualify, Winawer said.

"If students leave the premises and don't eat or eat fast food, it defeats the whole purpose of good nutritional intake and their opportunity to learn."