As you may know, school lunches have become a touchy subject in the last few years, as everyone from parent groups to the federal government to Jamie Oliver have pushed for an overhaul. Considering more than 32 million students eat school-supplied meals, and many of them get more than half their daily caloric intake from school meals, small changes have the potential to make a big impact.

Starting this fall, schools will have to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, per new federal regulations announced in January. The first major changes to school food in 15 years also dictate reduced salt, fat and fried foods, and set a calorie maximum per meal. Most of the changes will take effect in the 2012-2013 school year, though some, such as lower sodium, will be phased in over the next few years.

Additional guidelines include:

  • only 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, which can only count for up to half of the fruit and vegetable requirements
  • tomato paste, such as in pizza sauce, will count as a vegetable
  • only low-fat and non-fat milk
  • baked potato products are allowed

The thing is, though, no matter how healthy the meal, if kids won't eat it, it doesn't matter. Obviously, parents are the biggest advocates of healthy eating. By serving nutritious meals at home, and involving your kids in meal shopping and prep, you can influence eating habits over time. Is it always easy? Nope. You might have to send your kid to bed with a grumbly tummy a few times. Be prepared to have your cooking criticized. Don't take it personally, and don't give in and make something else just for your picky eater. Expect more of your kids. They can handle it.

But now I'm getting off track. Like I said, as a parent, you do the heavy work of teaching your kids to eat healthy food. But as Michele Obama said, "Parents have a right to expect that their efforts at home won't be undone each day in the school cafeteria or in the vending machine in the hallway. …Parents have a right to expect that their kids will be served fresh, healthy food that meets high nutritional standards."

Douglas County School District administers the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program that's been around since 1946, and operates in over 101,000 public and non-profit private schools. Based on the DCSD Nutrition Services open house I recently attended, my district is trying to get it right. Some of the highlights:

  • whole wheat pizza with roasted veggies and a balsamic drizzle
  • roasted veggie whole wheat flatbread sandwiches
  • chicken hotdogs colored with cherry juice (this was pretty darn good, actually)
  • vegetarian pasta casserole
  • chicken teriyaki with brown rice

In addition to hot meals, many schools in the district currently have, or are expecting, harvest bars. These salad bars filled with fresh fruits and veggies are part of a grant the district received.

Finally, one effort I really applaud is the move to make existing recipes simpler, with less additives and junk. For example, DCSD previously used a commercial pasta sauce with high fructose corn syrup. Now, they are making their own sauce with only natural ingredients and no high fructose corn syrup. Sugar is number six on the ingredient list. Not bad.

Overall, I was impressed at the effort. The food was good, and not such a major departure that kids will rebel. More like upgraded versions of traditional meals. Still, when I checked the lunch menu for February, I was a little underwhelmed. Yes, the veggie pizza is available, but cheese and pepperoni is still an option. How many kids are going to pick the veggie over the pepperoni? And if kids can choose between a cheese omelet with french toast slices, ORchicken nuggets, are they really going to save room for the carrot and celery sticks, and diced pear offered on the side? Not likely.

It sounds good to include healthy options on the menu, but again, if the kids don't choose them . . .

I don't know the answer. I don't think anyone does. Change takes time, and it's often difficult and uncomfortable. I challenge you to get involved. Continue to educate yourself and you kids. Push some buttons.