OGDEN -- Utah school districts, including Ogden and Weber, are preparing for a potential food fight that may hit with the August start of the 2012-13 school year and a new government mandate to make lunches more healthful.
Among the new rules is that all students who purchase school lunch must choose or accept a daily fruit or vegetable on their tray. If any student does not accept a fruit or vegetable, that student's lunch cannot be counted among those eligible for federal reimbursement and the schools will lose some funding.
So cafeteria workers will be making sure a fruit or vegetable lands on every tray. But schools cannot force students to eat those fruits and veggies.
"Food wasted is inevitable, I think," said Kristine Scott, who heads the Ogden School District Child Nutrition Program. "The optimistic part of me hopes we are providing them with healthy, balanced meals, not extras or desserts as often, and I'm hoping they will realize they need to eat so they don't get hungry."
Among the other regulation mandates are that green vegetables, orange vegetables and peas or beans must each appear on school menus at least once a week. Sodium and fat must be decreased, and servings of protein or protein-equivalents must increase slightly in size. Whole grain servings per student must be at least an ounce a day, so chicken nuggets and patties served will have whole-grain breading, and pizza crust will have a higher whole-grain content as well.
The Obama administration announced the changes earlier this year, based on the United States Department of Agriculture's guidelines. The more healthful school meals, which also include guidelines for school breakfasts, are a component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The new guidelines are intended to fight childhood obesity and improved the health of more than 32 million children nationwide. The program goes into effect July 1, but both Ogden and Weber School Districts will not be required to put changes into effect until school starts in the fall.
It's the first major change in school lunch requirements in 15 years, so school districts are being forced to change long-standing nutritional plans.
"The system used to be nutrient-standard based," said Kathleen Harris, Weber School District Child Nutrition Program supervisor. "Now it will be food based. We have to offer five different components: fruit, vegetables, meat or meat alternatives, grains and milk. Kids have to have at least three components on their trays for us to claim them on reimbursement."
A fruit or vegetable must be one component, Harris said, so a child could choose a fruit, and breaded fish, for example, or a vegetable, milk, and a burger or fruit. A fruit, vegetable and a chocolate milk is also among the combinations that would fulfill the basic requirement for reimbursement.
"I hope it will have a positive effect on teaching kids to eat," Scott said. "I hope it teaches them they will have a full meal when they have these three things. That's knowledge that will help them since they are less likely to understand, at a young age, about calories, vitamins and nutrients."
Meal planners will do some calorie counting for students, however. The new guidelines assign a minimum and maximum meal calorie level based on age groups.
* Kindergartners through fifth-graders should get a meal with 550 to 650 calories.
* Sixth- through eighth- graders should get a meal with 600 to 700 hundred calories.
* Ninth- through 12th graders should get a meal with 750 to 850 calories.
"We had minimum calories before, but we did not have maximums," Harris said.
Harris and Scott each said they are working to revamp their food offerings by the beginning of the school year.
At least initially, implementing the new system would require a lot more work and attention from cafeteria workers, they said.
Harris also thought additional fruits and vegetables would increase the cost of providing lunch. Scott was hopeful that about the same amount of funding could be spent on slightly more healthful foods.
Both nutritionists said they are encourage by students' acceptance of district-generated menu improvements in recent years.
Then again, both women expect some resistance this fall.
"We have already worked on legumes," Scott said. "For Cinco de Mayo last year, we served black bean salsa with corn tortilla chips. I thought it was really good. I think beans are something kids will need to be exposed to more. We make really good baked beans and the kids that try them like them, but some kids just won't try them."