Students across the Midlands may be seeing green when they head back to school next week as in salad greens, green beans, collards and zucchini.
With new federal nutrition standards for school lunches underway, districts everywhere are gearing up for the healthier changes with new menus and guidelines for staff.
While some of the standards could be phased in over time, most of the guidelines set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 had to be implemented by July 1.
Some of the more noticeable changes will be the addition of fruits and vegetables, skim or fat-free milk, whole grains and calorie restrictions.
For schools to qualify for federal meal reimbursements, students, for example, will be required to select at least one fruit or vegetable for their tray as they move through the cafeteria line but may opt for more than one of those if they choose.
Representatives from area districts say the new standards are raising the bar to an entirely new level where student nutrition is concerned. But many said their schools had already taken steps in recent years whether through nutritional policies set by the district or incentives set by the USDA to incorporate healthier meals into their cafeteria plans.
Both Richland 1 and Lexington 1 several years ago worked to remove such things as full-calorie sodas, candies and chips from its school vending machines. In addition, Richland 1 just added salad bars at 12 of its schools.
The districts earlier steps have made my job a lot easier, said Richland 1s newest addition to its student nutrition services, registered dietician Marsha Taylor.
Districts have sent letters and notices detailing the changes to parents and have posted the information on school websites.
In Lexington 1, where schools had already increased their fruit and vegetable selections to include two fruits and two vegetable choices, meeting the new guidelines wont be a problem said Patricia Carter, the districts director of food services and nutrition.
Our district has been doing nearly all those regulations for some time, Carter said. We try to be proactive. Once you hear something is coming down the pike, you start getting ready for it.
The district, which has won numerous awards for its nutritional programs, has worked to make such simple changes as offering a variety of vegetables, beans and legumes and switching to whole grains, Carter said.
In fact, at each of the districts elementary schools, 50 percent or more of the grain products served are whole grains, one of the new federal guidelines. But whole grains in particular have been a hard sell to kids, especially when used in that age-old favorite spaghetti.
The kids fussed a little at first, but theyre used to it now, Carter said.
The popularity of other foods, such as raw pepper strips and roasted cauliflower have been surprising to school nutritionists.
Were amazed how well those have gone over, she said.
Taylor, who helped design Richland 1s menus, said she was excited about the new meal plans.
I tried to make it as healthy as possible but still have some of the old favorites on the menu, she said.
Students will still see such favorites as pizza and even tater tots, though pizzas now have whole grain crusts and tater tots are baked.
Other sample menus include spaghetti with whole grain cinnamon roll, barbeque pork sandwiches served with fresh broccoli salad and yogurt breakfast parfaits at Richland 1 schools. There will be Teriyaki or breaded chicken sandwich with choice of steamed S.C.-grown summer squash, Caesar salad, applesauce or sliced oranges served at Lexington 2.
The new menus could also help curb the growing numbers of obesity and diabetes cases, school officials said. Diabetes in particular is a concern in Richland 1, Taylor said.
So we have to pay a lot of attention to this, she said. Converting to this and having a healthy menu will help those children with those diagnoses.
Taylors position was recently refilled after being vacant for a few years. The decision to hire another dietician was made specifically with the new federal guidelines in mind, said Imogene Clarke, director of Richland 1s student nutrition services director.
It was imperative that we bring back that dietitian position, she said.
Ultimately though, it may be up to the students how the new standards go over.
Carter, a mother of three children herself, said you cant force children to eat better.
Its education and trying new foods, she said. When my children were growing up I never made them eat things, but Id ask them to try something or at least take two bites.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.