If you stepped into a school cafeteria this year, you might notice something different. Gone are the cartons of whole milk and junk food. In their place are a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.
These changes are happening in school lunch programs across the country in response to the USDA's newest school meal requirements.
Local nutritionists are applauding the changes, which they hope will introduce young students to a healthier way of eating. Among the most noticeable changes is that students must now take a fruit or vegetable with each meal or potentially pay more for their lunch. Schools have also made the switch to whole grain breads, rolls and pizza dough.
"The younger you develop these healthy habits, the more likely they are to stick into adolescence and adulthood," said Corrine Kanetski, a registered dietitian with Blue Mountain Health System. "It's important to help them realize that something that's good for them can also taste good. If you don't offer these foods to them and allow them to make those choices, they're missing an important lesson."
At one local school, students have reacted well to the changes. They're not just tolerating their fruits and vegetables; they're enjoying them.
"My concern was that they would take the fruit, but they wouldn't eat it," said Maureen Gutstein, director of Dining Services at Lehighton Area School District.
While students are required to take at least one fruit or vegetable, they aren't required to eat it.
"I've been surprised. There hasn't been a lot of waste."
Gutstein credits the program's success with good planning and making an effort to educate the students about the changes. It doesn't hurt that it took several years for the USDA to finalize the school lunch law; Gutstein had been gradually changing the district's menu as details became available.
"We knew these changes were coming for a few years. We gradually made changes, so it wouldn't hit all at once," she said, noting that the district switched to whole grains last year, and began introducing low-fat milk and low-fat chocolate milk, along with light salad dressings.
"We didn't want to wait until the last minute. Massive amounts of change don't always go as well," she added.
By the start of this school year, the only details the district had to finalize were portion sizes. Federal law reduced the amount of protein the school can offer at each meal and increased the amount of whole grains.
"If they take the whole meal, it's not really changing in quantity. In many cases, because the students can take up to two fruits and two vegetables, the students are actually getting more food," said Gutstein.
Consuming fruits or vegetables at lunch works in students' favor, both from a health perspective and financially. If a student chooses to skip the fruits and vegetables, they must pay the higher "a la carte" price for their meal. A la carte prices are higher because they are not subsidized by the federal government.
If a high school student chooses a meal of pizza, an apple, fresh lettuce, and a carton of fat-free milk, they would pay the daily meal rate of $2.20. (Prices are slightly lower at the elementary level.) If they decline the fruit and vegetables, they would be charged an a la carte price of $2.30. That's 10 cents more for less food.
To ensure that students understand the new pricing structure, Gutstein has placed signs demonstrating what foods each meal must contain to be considered a "meal." She also included signs over the fruits and vegetables encouraging students to take two of each, and was available to answer any questions that parents might have during the district's annual open house.
"As far as the parents were concerned, there weren't a lot of problems," she said. "They are getting a much better variety. No kid should be complaining, because they have lots of choices."
On one day last week, high school students could choose from diced pears, peaches, or watermelon and whole grapes, apples, or oranges. And that's just the fruit options for a serving of vegetables, students could take radishes, romaine salad, sweet potato salad, broccoli raisin salad, or German potato salad.
This variety is a good opportunity for young students to explore new foods and discover new favorites, added nutritionist Kanetski.
"Having different choices encourages them to make the healthier choices on their own," she said. "It's empowering for them to realize that they can make these choices and enjoy these healthy foods, rather than have someone dictate what they can eat."
In addition to nearly a dozen fruit and vegetable choices each day, head cook Lisa Stimpfl also prepares a daily hot meal, four or five hot sandwich or wrap options, deli sandwiches, whole grain pizzas, and a vegetarian meal option.
"I am preparing about 25 recipes per day," added Stimpfl. "We are offering a lot of options that the students didn't get last year."
Stimpfl has been pleased by the students' reactions at lunch this year and encourages students to continue providing feedback about the newest offerings.
"As long as you have a good relationship with the kids and ask for their feedback, they will be honest with you," said Stimpfl.
While this year's USDA guidelines apply only to school lunch menus, many schools have already begun to look at their breakfast offerings. Rules regulating school breakfast menus will take effect next year.
At Lehighton Area School District, Gutstein has already made the switch to skim milk for breakfast. She is also introducing more whole grains and reduced-sugar cereals, and now offers three different fruits at each breakfast. Beginning next year, students must take one fruit or a fruit juice to qualify for the normal or reduced meal price.
"It's an educational process. There are reasons behind these guidelines," she said of the new school lunch rules, which are modeled off of the Food Guide Pyramid and the USDA's latest findings on healthy eating. "This is where the children are, and this is an educational building. It's our job to educate them about healthy food."