By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
August 11, 2012

When students head back to school this fall, most will be offered a smorgasbord of healthier foods in lunch lines.

The reason: New government nutrition standards for school meals go into effect this year, raising the bar for the first time in more than 15 years. Schools must meet the standards to get federal meal reimbursements.

Many school districts are doing major overhauls. But some have already made significant improvements in nutritional quality of meals over the last few years, and this year they're upping their game.

  • Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa will be serving new entrees, including a spicy black-bean vegetarian wrap and sweet-potato-encrusted fish topped with pineapple salsa. These are being added to the district's already progressive menu, which includes mac and cheese made with pureed butternut squash, roasted broccoli and vegetarian lasagna.
  • Knox County (Tenn.) Schools will be offering whole-grain biscuits, pizza made with whole-grain crust and a tomato sauce that contains sweet potato puree, and a spring mix lettuce salad with smoked turkey, strawberries, feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.
  • The Wake County (N.C.) Public School System, which has year-round school, is offering larger servings of fruits and vegetables, including sprite melon, which is similar to honeydew.

Standards call for dramatic changes, including adding more variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables, requiring at least half the grains served be whole grains and limiting sodium.

"It's going to take some work to get kids used to a new way of eating," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. "It means schools have to serve not only healthy foods but good-tasting, appealing foods."

The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of U.S. kids are overweight or obese. A 2010 law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools. The standards are designed to improve the health of about 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and about 12 million who eat breakfast there as well. Kids consume about 30% to 50% of their daily calories while at school.

Hey, kids: Grab some fruit

A key element to the success of these changes is marketing and selling the foods to students, says Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association and food service director at Manatee County School District in Bradenton, Fla.

Much of the acceptance hinges on offering a variety of fruits and vegetables at each meal, including favorites such as grapes, peaches, pears and applesauce, she says. "We are focused on providing students with a lot of choices."

The biggest challenge: "re-educating students that they have to take a half cup of fruit or half cup of vegetable at lunch," she says.

School food service personnel have been scrambling this summer to create new recipes and order foods that meet the new standards while operating on tight budgets and attempting to please their young customers.

So that students don't just throw away the new foods, many districts host taste tests so kids get a voice in the offerings.

In a new survey of 579 school food service directors by the School Nutrition Association, 95% said they encourage students to try new menu items, often by taste testing, cited by 87.2%.

Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of Student Nutrition Services of Hillsborough County Schools, says every year her district has a "fresh flavors food show" that 250 students from grades three to 11 attend as representatives of the student body. They sample and rate different menu concepts such as fish tacos, sweet potato salad and spinach lasagna.

This year at the show the students "hated the sweet potato salad, but they liked a spicy black-bean vegetarian wrap."

Not every food is a winner. "We tried whole-grain biscuits last year. It was horrible, and I said, 'We've gone too far,' " Harrison says. Students don't like anything "too edgy. They are kids."

Taste tests help determine what will sell and what will be a bust, agrees Marilyn Moody, senior director of Child Nutrition Services in the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System. Foods that flopped: collard greens, pinto beans, vegetarian pizza and blood oranges.

But students took to yogurt parfaits with granola and pluots, similar to plums, Moody says.

This year she's trying whole-wheat hot dog buns, which will be served with the popular all-turkey, reduced-fat, reduced-sodium frankfurter.

Students know there is a push for foods to be healthier, she says. "Little kids are quick to ask, 'Is this healthy?' They want to be perceived as eating healthy choices. They know that is the right thing to do."

Moody says it has been challenging to create 750- to 850-calorie menus for high school students because there are now maximum limits on the amount of proteins and grains that can be served each week. So the cafeteria staff is loading the trays with fruits and vegetables.

She says the staff has to meet a range of needs — kids who are overweight or obese and "those who are food insecure because they don't know where their evening meals will come from. They need the calories."

Restaurant-worthy menus

Students are tough customers. "Our students are so savvy we have got to produce products they like," says Jon Dickl, director of nutrition for Knox County Schools in Knoxville. "The high school students are definitely the most savvy. They will vote with their dollars." (Students pay $2.75 for lunch.)

"Elementary schools have the highest levels of participation in the lunch program. In middle school, they can be a little more finicky," he says.

Students, especially the older ones, expect sophisticated menu choices similar to what they are used to ordering at restaurants, Dickl says. "That's why we do a lot of things that mimic what they find in restaurants." Examples: Southwest chicken fajita salad with fire-roasted corn and black bean salsa, and low-sodium teriyaki chicken strips served with Asian vegetables and a mix of brown and white rice.

Dickl says sometimes cafeteria employees try to sneak in healthier ingredients. So the pizza is made with sweet potato puree blended into the tomato sauce. "You don't taste the puree, but it boosts the vitamin A content of the pizza." It's also made with a whole-grain crust and low-fat mozzarella cheese.

Olivia Fomby, 14, a high school sophomore in Dickl's Knoxville district, says the key to getting kids to eat school lunch is to make sure it looks and tastes "fresh, not like they just put it in the microwave and heated it up for five minutes."

Her brother, Ben, 16, a junior, says the lunchroom food is really "fantastic" and can hold its own compared with restaurant fare.

Dickl says improvements will continue. "I don't think we are ever going to get to the place where we'll say we are done."

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