By Katye Martens, USA TODAY
By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
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.