By AMANDA MARTINEZ

For students who access free lunch at John O’Connell High School, the sound of the lunch bell means a race to the cafeteria, known to all as the Beanery. There, students line up to grab food trays. But every day it’s the same: The choices are limited and bad, students and school officials said.

State law requires all school districts in California to provide nutritious meals to low-income students, but the options at O’Connell are so bad that the vast majority of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch don’t bother to eat it. This is a problem, said school nurse Jane Steiner, because she regularly sees students with issues caused by hunger.

“Every day I see at least a dozen kids that suffer from what I call disordered eating,” she said, explaining that students come into the school’s wellness center tired and suffering from stomach aches and symptoms of depression. “I provide band-aid food like apples, peanut butter and bread from donations I receive from Rainbow Grocery.”

Low turnout of students accessing cafeteria school lunches can also be seen at nearby Balboa and Mission high schools. Both are schools where more than 50 percent of the student population is enrolled in the free- and reduced-lunch program. At Balboa High about 300 out of the 600 students who are eligible take a lunch, while at Mission High only 200 of the 533 eligible students take a lunch, according to the schools’ cafeteria managers.

Steiner sympathizes with students who don’t eat the free lunch. “I wouldn’t eat it and I personally don’t think it’s very good,” she said.

The students clearly agree. On a recent Thursday, one teenager barely sat down in his chair before tearing open a packet of barbecue sauce and pouring it over what the lunch calendar called a baked rotini. The small pasta meal was partially stuck to its cardboard dish. He quickly mixed the sauce into the pasta and devoured it. Another boy looked around as he layered ketchup onto cucumbers and placed it on a cheeseburger that had no bun.

Of the total school population of 744 students, 75 percent (about 560 students) are eligible for the free- and reduced-lunch program, yet the cafeteria serves only 140 to 160 students a day, according to cafeteria coordinator Rosalina Navarroza.

It all seems the same, or a variation of the same thing,” said junior Gio Gutierrez, explaining why students depend on condiments to switch up the taste and variety. One look at the February lunch calendar shows that baked rotini is served weekly along with pizza dippers, chicken fillet and a very meager salad bar selection. The meals come from a company called Preferred Meal Systems that specializes in frozen entrees which meet the minimal nutrition value standards as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

When asked to describe the food, Gutierrez and his friends who rely on the free lunches quickly responded in unison: “soggy, undercooked and wet.”

“I don’t want to sound like a jerk but on one side my meat was cold,” said Gutierrez, referring to the meal he’d eaten the day before. As a member of the school’s wrestling team, Gutierrez understands it’s important to eat so that he can play sports. “If you don’t eat the lunch you go hungry,” he said. His teammate Emanuel Montes added, “I think most kids do.”

Few options are offered on campus. The San Francisco Unified School District’s “No Empty Calories” policy  has made major improvements to school nutrition standards by prohibiting vending machines and sales of chips and sodas, but it has also put limits on outside food sold on campus during the day.

Student- and parent-run food sales, for example, have been prohibited since 2003. According to the school’s wellness center policy brief,  “Competitive food sales at lunch time drain money from the lunch line and Beanery operations, causing lunch-line menus to drop in quality because more students choose competitive foods instead.”

Without other options, most like senior Carla Santos simply go without food during the day. “I wait until after school to eat. You will never see me eat in the cafeteria because it doesn’t taste like real food,” she said.

While some wait out a more than seven-hour day without eating, others like sophomore John Michaels try to skip class 10 to 15 minutes before the lunch bell rings so they can buy lunch off campus. Michaels works to avoid school resource officers who guard the school gates because only seniors on good standing have permission to leave campus during lunch. “I have gotten detention for this many times,” he explained.

At Tortas El Primo, the popular Mexican sandwich shop two blocks from the school, server Franco Mata Perez said students often call in their orders ahead of time so they don’t have to worry about a wait. The shop opens at 7 a.m. and, according to Perez, serves about 40 students before, during and after school hours. Perez’s brother Arthur, who works the cash register, said most students order a ham sandwich that sells for $4.50 with a free soda.

Serving almost an equal number of students is El Faro Taqueria next door to the school. Cook Raymunda Ramirez said about 50 students visit each day to purchase, among other things, the chips and sodas they can’t buy at school.

But as senior Edith Ruiz explained, not all students have the money to eat off campus. “I can’t afford outside food so I don’t even bother leaving,” she said, looking at the cheese quesadilla she pulled off the free-lunch line. “The cheese tastes nasty but it’s food and I’m hungry,” she said.

Parent activist Caroline Grannan is familiar with student complaints that “food sucks,” and has worked years on the issue of food quality in schools as a member of Parents Advocating School Accountability (PASA). She says the problem is there isn’t enough money to support school food. “There is no way you could not make a decent meal with what we spend,” she said. “Reimbursements are pathetic.”

Currently the federal and state governments reimburse SFUSD for free meals at about $2.20 per meal.

SFUSD Communications Officer Gentle Blythe said Student Nutritional Services, which purchases the lunches, has been “well underfunded for a long time” because federal reimbursement rates are not in touch with high-cost-of-living areas like San Francisco.

The lunches may be getting even thinner. Recently State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced that state reimbursements for the lunch program will run out by April. In a press conference held earlier this month, O’Connell pushed for emergency legislation AB95, authored by Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), which would maintain the program at its current level for the remainder of the school year.

At the same time, PASA is working on the Child Nutrition Act, a piece of legislation that would increase the amount of money schools receive from the federal government for meals.

Junior Jamal Morgan said he doubts he’ll be convinced to eat from the free-lunch menu before he graduates, but said, “I hope things will change for my little brother.”