Schools are trying to answer a tough question: What can they serve that students will eat, while still meeting U.S. guidelines?
In the school cafeteria these days, if you're trying to skate through the line without a fruit or a vegetable, watch out.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, you gotta get an orange," said Patty Evans, a cafeteria worker, watching students' trays in Champaign Central High School's lunch line earlier this month.
New federal standards for school lunches mean kids are being served more fresh fruit and vegetables this fall — and tighter controls on calories and fat.
The changes — implemented in July under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — have many students and school officials praising the law's overall goals of healthy living.
But the changes have not been universally embraced.
Many students are throwing away some of the new offerings. Some are getting more than they can eat during their lunch period, while others are not getting enough and have to purchase additional food.
And the changes put burdens on local school districts, as they adjust to menu changes, greater food preparation time and new food storage requirements.
Freshman Peyton Luesse said she likes Central's hot lunch and has noticed school lunches getting progressively healthier since she attended Champaign's Bottenfield Elementary.
"It's a myth that it's not good," Luesse said, referring to food served in school lunches.
She doesn't mind picking up the required healthier foods, and her favorite meal is the chicken sandwich, which Central was serving that day. She also likes the fresh fruit the cafeteria serves as well.
"A lot of people here eat it, and they enjoy it," Luesse said. "Everyone, at least, enjoys part of it."
Central's cafeteria co-manager Kelly Kimbrell said that for the most part, students are receptive to the healthier options, with a few exceptions.
"I see more beans going in the garbage," Kimbrell said.
Her tone is dour when mentioning the requirement of serving beans — and not the green kind.
Mary Davis, Champaign schools' food service director, said beans are hard to make appetizing without adding calories or fat.
"You don't want to add a lot of cheese," she said.
Champaign schools serve campfire beans, which use Great Northern or Navy beans, and in a beef-and-bean burrito, which Davis said isn't exactly popular.
Other items have been unpopular, too.
Davis has already pulled a whole-grain chicken egg roll off the menu.
"It comes out of the box brown, and it just gets browner" as it's prepared, Davis said. "A lot of those went in the trash."
Greg Lazzell, the Danville school district's director of food service, also expressed his frustration with having to serve beans.
"Kids don't like beans; let's be realistic," Lazzell said. "That's an item (that) I'm sure a good portion of ... are going in the trash."
He has learned to plan accordingly by preparing fewer servings when they're on the menu.
He knows there will be other waste, too, and that's an issue he tries to tackle while planning menus.
"If the offerings are enticing enough, you hope if they take it, they eat it," Lazzell said.
But not all the healthy options are unpopular.
Danville students have especially liked one change this year, when the cafeterias started offering white whole-wheat breads.
This improves the presentation on items like turkey sandwiches, which schools offer as an alternative entree. A turkey sandwich on a miniature white wheat sub roll is more appealing than one on dark wheat bread, he said.
"We all eat with our eyes, and kids are just as much as impressionable ... as adults are," Lazzell said.
Danville is also offering more healthy choices when selling food items a la carte.
Taking out less-healthy choices takes something appealing away from students, Lazzell said, so there's been a strong push to offer healthy, high-quality items, like fresh strawberries.
"We've tried to have a trade-off there," Lazzell said.
He said one of this year's biggest successes so far has been a chef's salad, which the Danville schools offer instead of a salad bar. It features ham, turkey, hard-boiled eggs, carrots and tomatoes.
The cafeterias portion salad dressings in small cups, which he said doesn't exactly limit students who take more than one, but reminds them how much a serving is. The cafeterias only serve low-fat dressings.
But dressing is also something he worries about when the cafeterias serves pizza and salad at the same time.
"The kids want to slather their salad in dressing," Lazzell said. "That has to be policed. It will exceed our calorie limit if that's something we're encouraging."
He, too, said labor costs have increased because of the new standards, but it's easier in Danville because food is cooked at each school.
Danville used to have one menu; now it has three: kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grade, and high school.
He also has had issues with counts for grains.
"The crazy thing is, if you were to offer, say, a fish sandwich and a hamburger on the same day, the kids can't take both," Lazzell said. "But both breads still count, even if kids can't take both. It is definitely a juggling act."
Davis has struggled with serving crackers with a chef's salad for elementary school students. One package isn't enough, but two packages are too much. Davis then has to lessen the grains for another day when offering two packages.
"It's a huge puzzle," Davis said.
Davis said she believes that, in general, there's more waste and not just associated with one food.
At the high school, it's because students are required to take a fruit or vegetable they might not otherwise want. At the elementary school, it could be because the new requirements mean giving students more fruits or vegetables than they can eat.
For example, elementary school students have to be served eight carrot sticks to meet a daily requirement.
Fresh fruit can be harder to eat, too, Davis said, and food service workers have started cutting oranges in half for kindergartners and first-graders who might otherwise have trouble peeling and eating them in the time their lunch period allows.
Cutting up oranges versus serving them whole is also just one way the new standards mean more work for cafeteria workers.
Davis said the healthier lunches are more work-intensive and use more space.
Kimbrell, from Central's cafeteria, said she has run into obstacles like having to find oven space for things that must be baked.
"It's just more time consuming," Kimrell said, and each day's menu takes extensive preparation. Workers sometimes start on the next day's meal in order to have enough prep time.
Fresh fruits and vegetables that will be sent to the school district's elementary schools take up more space on carts when workers are preparing lunches at the high schools.
Fresh fruits may also present the challenge of needing to be ripened perfectly before they can be served.
Davis said she likes serving pears as a fresh-fruit option. But she doesn't want to serve them if they're rock hard, because then kids won't like them.
But in the meantime, the pears have to be stored somewhere while they ripen, and they can't get too ripe.
"The kids won't eat it if it has brown spots, and that's when a pear is the best," Davis said.
Another challenge: There's no built-in way to feed more grains and protein to student-athletes, who may burn calories, unless they purchase extra food, Davis said. They can have more fruits and vegetables, but those usually aren't the items that fill hungry kids up, she said.
Davis said she's frustrated because she doesn't believe the new standards were well thought out. She said schools and food manufacturers weren't given enough time to implement the changes.
She believes a 6-cent increase in what the USDA reimburses the schools isn't enough to cover the costs of more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods.
Prices for whole-grain foods, especially, are higher than their non-whole-grain counterparts.
She would have liked to see the changes integrated more slowly, so districts could have more time to plan menus and make sure what they serve hits the minimum and maximum amounts of grains, calories and servings required by the standards.
Davis said she's not sure if the new requirements mean kids are trying new foods, and the kids who eat the most fruits and vegetables are the ones who would have chosen those foods anyway.
"I know there's a lot of waste" with the new standards, she said, and she wishes the requirements would have focused more on sugar and sodium.
Lazzell said his district was able to implement the changes gradually and was almost there last year.
The bigger change this year has been watching and limiting calories.
"There's kind of a fine line you have to walk, with balancing the calories and still making sure you're (creating) a good nutritional meal (kids) will eat," Lazzell said. "If we offer this ultra-healthy meal and they still won't eat it, we're not accomplishing what we're trying to accomplish."
He likes the concept of the new standards but concedes that school districts are still learning about them.
"Ultimately, I think it's a great thing. Obesity needs to be addressed," Lazzell said. "The bigger picture is, we've got to hope that we create some lifelong eating habits."
However, he believes kids consume more calories from fast food and convenience store snacks than in the school cafeteria.
"We're hoping to educate them to eat properly beyond the school day," he said.
Changes to school lunch program
Changes to the National School Lunch Program went into effect July 1 of this year, based on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Changes to the School Breakfast Program will start next school year, and school lunches will be reducing sodium over the next 10 years.
The changes are "aimed to foster the kind of healthy changes at school that many parents are already trying to encourage at home," according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "such as making sure that kids are offered both fruits and vegetables each day, more whole grains and portion sizes and calorie counts designed to maintain a healthy weight."
Here are the actual changes to the National School Lunch Program that started in July:
- Minimum and maximum calories for each grade level.
- A choice between low-fat unflavored milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk.
- Half of grains served must be "whole-grain rich," and all grains must be so by the 2013-14 school year.
- Saturated fat is limited; trans fat is forbidden.
- Students must be offered fruit every day.
- Schools must offer vegetables from different groups each week, including dark greens, reds or oranges, beans or peas and starchy vegetables.