Serve cauliflower or lima beans with the baked chicken nuggets or barbecued beef rib, and most of the day's vegetable offering will end up in the trash - regrettably, too often alongside unopened cartons of 1 percent or skim milk.
Kids will, however, eat squash - be it butternut, zucchini or yellow summer squash - and love grapes, bananas and all kinds of melon. But if sweet potatoes are to be part of the day's meal, better make them sweet potato fries, or they'll end up with the lima beans and cauliflower.
Those are some of the lessons Cliff Still, food services director for Groton Public Schools, has been learning this year as he and his colleagues in districts across the country are adapting to new school lunch nutrition regulations.
"The kids were already always eating green beans, corn and broccoli," said Still, who oversees the ordering and preparation of about 2,900 school lunches daily, about 32 percent of which are free or reduced-price. "But now we have to run more variety."
Because of new federal regulations that took effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, Still and his colleagues in school districts across the country have changed menus to add more types and amounts of fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, while subtracting fats and calories. The new rules, the first major overhaul in 15 years, are intended to combat rising rates of childhood obesity while also improving intake of more nutritious foods and positively influencing the lifelong eating habits of the nation's youth.
"Overall, some of the schools are finding the new menu patterns challenging," said Therese Dandeneau, dietitian in the state Department of Education's Bureau of Health/Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education. "But students are getting used to it, and the more nutrition education they get, the better."
Under the new rules, daily lunch must include ¾ cup to 1 cup of vegetables plus ½ cup to 1 cup of fruits, and each week's selection must include specific categories of produce. That means serving romaine lettuce with the chicken fajitas to fill the dark green vegetable requirement, sweet potatoes with the cheeseburgers for the red-orange category, and beans in the burritos to satisfy the legume requirement. Every student's tray must include a fresh, frozen or canned fruit and 1 cup of 1 percent or skim milk, or else the lunch won't count as reimbursable under the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.
"What are we missing?" Gail Sharry, food services director for New London schools, asked a boy in the lunch line at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School for a lunch of cheeseburgers on whole-grain buns with roasted sweet potatoes, corn chowder, salad and choice of fresh apples, oranges or applesauce.
In response, the boy picked a salad of romaine lettuce, tomatoes and broccoli off the counter, forgoing the hummus and carrot sticks that would also have filled the vegetable requirement, to add to the cheeseburger and applesauce on his tray.
"Thank you," said Sharry, whose district serves about 2,700 lunches per day. About 80 percent of them go to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
"The thing that's really different this year," she added, "is that the students have to take a fruit and vegetable. But most of them take what they should."
Her district, she said, last year modified its menu with more whole grains and fresh produce as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge program, so it was already doing a lot of what the new regulations require. One main change this year, she said, was cutting back on bread and grain offerings to eight servings per week - a challenge the district met when the bakery it uses reformulated the recipe for its breads. Under the new rules, the overall calories per meal were also cut by about 150 calories per age group, and sweet desserts are all but eliminated.
"The lunch is good, but it's not filling us up completely," said Diamond English, a seventh-grader at Bennie Dover. "And some of the fruit does go in the garbage."
Fellow seventh grader Peter Perez, however, said most of the kids he knows are eating the fruits and vegetables and drinking the milk.
"I'm a wrestler, so I like to drink the milk to make my bones grow better," said Perez, after finishing a hamburger on a whole-grain roll, corn chowder, salad, orange and milk for lunch.
At Robert E. Fitch Senior High School in Groton, two lunch regulars said they liked the changes this year, but had mixed views on whether many of their peers felt the same.
Johnathan Williams, a senior, said if a student doesn't want the piece of fruit or salad he's been forced to take, he'll give it away to a friend who does.
"But I see more kids eating the fruit," he said. "I usually take the apples or applesauce, and I eat a lot of salad."
A few tables away in the cafeteria, Jackie Kokomoor, a junior, was finishing a turkey and provolone sandwich, an apple, banana, baked potato chips, and orange juice and milk.
"I'm a swimmer so I eat a lot. I'm into the salads and the sandwiches," she said, referring to the cafeteria's deli sandwich counter and salad bar. "But a lot of fruit does get thrown away, so I don't see the point of making the kids take it if they're not going to eat it."
Still, the food services director, said that's his biggest complaint about the new rules. Improving the nutrition value of school lunches is a good thing, he said, but districts should have more flexibility in how that's achieved.
"We're told we have to have these components, and we put it on their trays and make them take it, and then we look in the garbage cans and see cartons of milk and whole fruits and vegetables dumped in without even a bite," he said. "We have noticed an increase in our waste tonnage. Why can't we just figure out what the kids will eat and serve that?"
This year, he said, cafeteria staff are making more food from scratch - roasting their own chickens versus buying precooked, and making their own spaghetti sauce and whole-grain pizza crust - because it's easier to tailor their own recipes to the new nutrition and portion size guidelines than find commercially available products that do. But the food products manufacturers are adapting, too, he said, by starting to offer new products that meet the rules.
Roberta Jacobs, the food services director for Norwich Public Schools, said meeting the new requirements is costing about 15 cents per serving more, mostly because of the cost of the increased amounts of fruits and vegetables being served. Like the other districts, she's hoping to receive a 6-cent-per-lunch increase in federal reimbursement she receives for the 75 percent of free- and reduced-price meals her district serves by submitting its menus for review.
"But it's good kids are getting better nutrition," she said. "I'm in favor of the new guidelines. We're hoping we're changing kids habits so they won't be junk food junkies."
Meeting the new school lunch nutrition rules:
Some examples of lunches served this month in Groton schools:
• Chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, steamed fresh broccoli, whole wheat dinner roll, chilled fruit
• Assorted topping pizza, tossed garden salad, chilled fresh fruit
• Simmered whole grain pasta with tomato meat sauce, fresh green beans, whole grain garlic toast, chilled fruit
• Beef and bean burrito with shredded cheese, chopped lettuce and tomato, salsa, sour cream, Spanish rice, refried beans, fresh banana
• Assorted meat and cheese or veggie whole wheat grinders, lettuce and tomato, baked potato chips, chilled fruit.
• Cheeseburger on whole wheat bun, lettuce and tomato, carrot sticks, sweet potato fries, chilled fresh fruit.