School lunches today contain some of the usual suspects — chicken nuggets, dinner rolls and pizza, for example.
But schools are getting sneaky. Pizza crusts and chicken nugget breading may contain whole grains, and dinner rolls may be made with white wheat, which contains more fiber than enriched white bread.
And you might see some new additions, like kale, brussels sprouts and black-eyed peas, on school menus.
"There's a lot more variety than when we were kiddos," said Pam Dannon, a registered dietitian with Williamsburg-James City County schools.
What makes up a school lunch
The requirements in place today have been around for about 15 years.
By law, school lunches are to contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. They must provide 1/3 of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, calories, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C.
Schools have several ways they can plan meals. Williamsburg-James City County Schools use the "enhanced food-based menu planning" approach. That means meals must be made up of five components: milk, meat or meat alternative, grains/breads and two servings of fruits or vegetables, or one of each. French fries (which schools bake instead of fry) are considered a vegetable. Chicken nugget breading can be counted toward the grain component.
That standard requires lunches to be made up of a minimum of 664 calories and 10 grams of protein for kindergarten through sixth grade. For grades seven through 12, meals must contain at least 825 calories and 16 grams of protein. These standards are averaged over a school week, so some days may be higher and other days lower.
But rules are about to get stricter
Nutritional standards for school lunches are about to get more stringent with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 as the government tries to combat childhood obesity. Final regulations are expected over the summer.
One of the big proposed changes is cutting sodium to 600 to 700 mg, she said. That's a hard one to swallow. A recent meal at WJCC elementary schools, in which students should choose from a chicken parmesan sandwich, beef and bean burrito, salad or wrap, contained nearly 1,800 mg sodium.
"It's going to take years for manufacturers to revise their products and ingredients and for us to then revise our recipes," Dannon said.
Meanwhile, kids may continue to have salty meals at home or at restaurants, making the school meals taste bland in comparison, she said.
Schools are already cutting down on salt. York schools, for example, use no salt, substituting seasonings for salt in dishes like "Mexicali corn."
The rules may also require water to be available at lunchtimes, but that might require installing water fountains in cafeterias — an unfunded mandate, Dannon said. Hampton schools have met that requirement by offering free cups of water.
The proposed rules also outlaw 1 percent chocolate and strawberry milk, requiring flavored milk to be skim instead. "I think it's going to negatively impact milk consumption," Dannon said.
Prices are supposed to go up under the legislation, too, to better reflect what it costs to make school lunches. It costs nearly $3 for Newport News schools to produce a school lunch, but students pay no more than $1.95, said Cathy Alexander, executive director of child nutrition services.
Every time lunch prices go up, paid participation dips, she said.
And budgets are tight. Schools look hard at labor costs and use of paper products to cut corners, and it often means buying inexpensive fruit, like apples, instead of pricier strawberries, Alexander said.
Plus, kids are picky. Kids won't eat pizza with dark, wheat crusts, she said. "This year we've been experimenting with whole-wheat pasta," she said. "Not having much success with that."
Fewer kids buying lunches means fewer dollars to create healthy lunches, she said.
Kids revolted when Poquoson schools tried to convert all bread, including sandwich buns, to whole wheat. They settled on white-wheat instead, but do use 100 percent whole-wheat pizza crusts, said Steve Pappas, executive director of operations.
And just because you serve healthy food doesn't mean kids will eat it. As kids filed out of D.J. Montague's cafeteria, most had eaten everything on their trays. But some threw away entire apples and oranges, an apple with just a few bites taken and half their fresh vegetables.
Fresh or processed?
Schools have taken some flak for using premade, processed food. Dannon compared two beef and bean burritos — one frozen, the other made from scratch — and found the two items nutritionally comparable. The frozen one was less labor intensive, which cuts down on food service costs, she said. But making things from scratch enables schools to cut down on things like sodium and fat, she said.
WJCC schools serve fresh fruit or vegetables every day. During a recent lunch at D.J. Montague Elementary School in James City County, students could pick an apple, orange, carrot and celery sticks with low-fat dip, 100 percent grape juice or a pureed fruit cup as a side dish or choose a fresh salad as their entrée.
Schools have also taken a beating for the way they use donated foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Schools often reroute the free chicken or cheese to manufacturers to be processed into things like preformed patties. Gloucester schools have not processed any of the U.S. Department of Agriculture foods they've received in the past 14 years. The way food service director Stephen Patton sees it, why pay someone to process it when he can prepare it for free? So they oven-bake the chicken they receive.
But does it taste good?
Mariel Waller, a fifth-grader at Bethel Manor Elementary School in York County, said she sometimes packs her lunch — a turkey and cheese sandwich on wheat bread with SunChips and a pack of 100-calorie cookies. But she likes school lunches, too.
"I look forward to the days that I do buy my lunch," she said.
"They're better than like McDonald's and Taco Bell," added classmate Allyson McDonald. "You get more variety."
Another fifth-grader, Jala Rollins said chicken nuggets are her favorite. She has tried the entrée salad, and they're "sort of OK," she said.
Sometimes, it's too cold. "And sometimes, it just doesn't taste good," she said.