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Thursday, January 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bellevue school rolls out sushi; kids eat it up

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The cooks for Bellevue's Odle Middle School said sayonara to the traditional lunch menu yesterday and, in a bold experiment, served up bento boxes brimming with sushi, pickled daikon and other Asian delectables.

Chopsticks were optional.

The menu shakeup was a nod to the Eastside's booming Asian-American population.

If successful, the $2.25 bento boxes will be incorporated into the lunch lineup at other Bellevue public schools in coming months.

But take heart, students, no raw fish will be served.

To keep costs down and health inspectors happy, Odle Middle School staffers rolled out the Odle Roll, a combination of cucumber, carrot and cream cheese.

Principal Ken Lyon supplied the wasabi, similar to horseradish, which brought up an important lesson of the day: Just because it's green, it doesn't mean it's guacamole.

After quelling the inferno in their mouths with chocolate milk, some students turned food critics. Here's sixth-grader Kevin Nguyen's take on . . .

. . . sushi: "What's up with the cream cheese?"

. . . potstickers: "Great."

. . . teriyaki chicken: "It tastes like chicken."

. . . rice with roasted sesame seeds: "Good."

. . . mango dessert: "It's got to go."

Perhaps it wasn't four stars, but as far as school lunches go, the overall consensus was thumbs up. Hey, the 209 kids who bought bento boxes can't be wrong. While that's 60 fewer lunches than normal for a main entree, food workers say it's a remarkable achievement considering new items usually fare much worse.

The idea of including ethnic food along with pizzas, hamburgers and hot dogs on school lunch menus at Odle and elsewhere is not new. Bellevue and Seattle schools offer stir fry or fried rice during the Chinese New Year in February. Issaquah's public schools offer rice bowls at some high schools year round.

And many districts, Seattle included, are getting more requests for vegetarian lunches, not so much for health reasons but because of religious or other beliefs.

But none has gone as far as the Bellevue School District in offering bento boxes on Wednesdays to students, including those in a subsidized lunch program.

One of the toughest jobs menu planners face is figuring out the fickle palate of youngsters.

Take Seattle, for instance. In elementary schools, one of the most popular items at lunch is "waffles and sausages," said Carol Johnson, director of child nutrition services.

A few years ago, a staffer figured they were such a hit at breakfast that they should be added to the lunch menu. They've been selling like, well, hotcakes ever since.

Eric Boutin, nutrition-service specialist in the Bellevue School District, has another food prognostication: "They like to eat real fast and with their fingers," which is why he thinks sushi and potstickers will sell well.

The Eastside is a desirable area for many Japanese families, according to Japanese community leaders. Seattle's Sunju Club, an association of Japanese businesses, reports that 70 percent of the members' workers live on the Eastside.

The Seattle Japanese School, with 500 students, moved to Bellevue in 1986 after administrators realized the majority of their students were from the east side.

Diversity is evident at Odle Middle School, where 26 percent of the students are of Asian descent. About a dozen students go to Japan every year as part of an exchange program.

"There is a lot of cultural experience that these kids have," said Lyon, Odle's principal, who brought the sushi concept to his school. "It's nothing new to them."

Tan Vinh's phone message number is 206-515-5656. His e-mail address is tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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