The cover from one in the "Lunch Lady" graphic novel series by Jarrett Krocoszka says it all. Lunch ladies - and kitchen managers and school food service and nutrition directors - are fighting back against a negative public perception.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks school lunchrooms are getting a bad rap – blamed for serving rotten food, creating the childhood obesity epidemic and, ultimately, putting our nation’s very future at risk.

School “lunch ladies” can be forgiven, she said, if they’re starting to take it personally.

“I know how hard you work, from early morning to late in the afternoon to feed Colorado kids,” Hayes told a gathering of 270 of those lunch ladies – and a smattering of “lunch gentlemen” – meeting Saturday in Aurora for the Colorado School Nutrition Association fall conference. “Without the food you make, many of those children simply could not learn.”

Hayes drew applause when she blasted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – who famously tangled with “Lunch Lady Alice” while attempting to remake the Huntington, W.V. schools’ menu this year for his Food Revolution reality TV series.

Oliver was appalled to find one school – in the city deemed America’s least fit – serving pizza and chocolate milk for breakfast, and chicken nuggets and reconstituted mashed potato “pearls” for lunch. But locals didn’t quickly take to the British chef foisting his ideas onto their kids’ lunch trays.

“It’s really all about Jamie Oliver and Jamie Oliver’s celebrity than about making fundamental changes,” Hayes said.

British TV chef Jamie Oliver has drawn praise and criticism for his efforts to change the menu in some U.S. schools.

“He chose to focus just on the negative things instead of including all the good things that go on there too.” More wild applause. Hayes clearly struck a chord with this group of school nutrition directors, kitchen managers and cooks.

Hayes, a nutrition coach, writes the “Eat Well at School” blog, runs the Nutrition for the Future website and has a Facebook page “School Meals that Rock.” She travels the country talking to dietitians, food service directors and other involved in feeding kids at home and school.

She’s convinced that the current childhood obesity debate is missing the mark.

“Parents point fingers at the schools, and the schools point fingers at the parents, and we all love to point fingers at McDonald’s,” she said. “Sometimes we get so caught up in finger-pointing that we forget to talk about just what our children are eating.”

She worries that far too many children are overfed but undernourished. She points out that 90 percent of teen-age girls and 70 percent of teen-age boys fail to get enough calcium.

Children and teens’ intake of vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc are all well below recommended levels, and the least nourished group in the country is teen-age girls, she said. She lays much of the blame on the nation’s obsession with thinness.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks the blame for childhood obesity has been misplaced.

“You see these teen-age girls go through the lunch lines, and they won’t take the meat, they only want a salad or a diet soda,” she said.

She criticized school districts that have banned chocolate-flavored milk, especially now that milk providers are offering low-fat flavored substitutes.

This has been a major controversy in Colorado school nutrition circles, as milk consumption typically plummets once chocolate milk is no longer an option.

“Some people are going off the deep end,” Hayes said, again to much applause. “I personally do not want to live in a world without chocolate. Along with that little extra sugar in chocolate milk comes a lot of nutrients. And now that we have chocolate milk formulations that are so low-fat, we should be considering them.”

Hayes also dished up some disparagement for those who insist schools ought not be in the food service business at all, and that sack lunches from home are a better alternative. In fact, she said, studies show that school lunches contain three times more dairy, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetables as the typical sack lunch from home.

“School meals are the one place that must meet strict guidelines for quality and nutritional value in the food served,” she said. “We are not the problem. We are in the forefront of the solution.”

Hayes isn’t the only one feeling unfairly put upon these days. Jody Houston, Director of Food Services for the Corpus Christie, Texas, school district and another speaker at the conference, urged school food service employees to be savvy marketers. She was promoting “Tray Talk,” a new public relations campaign put together by the School Nutrition Association to emphasize the benefits of school meals and showcase success stories from school districts nationwide.

“What’s the story we want to tell?” Houston asked. “We need to show that school meals are healthy meals.”

A recent School Nutrition Association survey of its members found widespread changes in the offing in school lunchrooms. Among the findings:

  • More than nine out of 10 school districts are increasing their offerings of whole grain products and fresh produce.
  • Nearly 70 percent of districts are reducing or eliminating sodium in foods.
  • About two-thirds of districts are reducing or limiting added sugar.
  • More than half of districts are increasing vegetarian options.
  • More than two-thirds of districts with vending services are increasing the availability of healthier beverages in the vending machines.

Houston sees marketing devices such as Tray Talk as a needed counterbalance to websites such as “Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project,” in which an anonymous Midwestern adult female blogger chronicles her experiences eating school lunches every day for a year, along with some distinctly unappetizing photos.

“It’s quite negative,” Houston said.

Anecdotally, more school districts also appear to be launching farm-to-school programs to provide more locally-grown foods in school lunchrooms.

Jill Kidd, director of food services for the Pueblo city school district, said she most appreciated the chance simply to network with other food service directors and kitchen managers.

“It’s good just to sit with other people for awhile and hear about what they’re doing,” she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.