CHICAGO, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- School cafeterias are taking on a colorful new look this fall as students across the country sit down to lunches that feature red sweet peppers, yellow squash and purple cabbage.
Even the french fries have a new hue: orange sweet potato.
New federal nutrition standards require schools to offer students more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to limit the sodium, calories, and saturated and trans fats in school meals. Whole grains are now a staple and quinoa is fast becoming a member of the school lunch lexicon.
The offerings must come in a variety of colors and schools are limited in the number of times starchy vegetables, such as corn and potatoes, can be served each week.
In Miami, public school students are being offered entrees this fall such as oven-roasted chicken with a Montego Bay Sauce made from pineapples and oranges, served with a romaine and spinach salad and seasonal fruit, including locally grown choices like star fruit. Cuban-style roast pork, brown rice, black beans, baked plantains and assorted fruit are also on the menu.
Schools in Knoxville, Tenn., are offering pizza made with a whole grain crust and reduced sodium sauce that contains sweet potato puree. Side dishes include Spinach Maria -- a local specialty -- or steamed broccoli and slices of locally grown melon.
Baja Fish Tacos with brown rice and broccoli slaw, as well as a choice of assorted fruit and vegetables are on the menu in Alexandria, Va.
The new rules are changing the way lunch trays look and challenging schools to be creative in enticing kids to try new things. The menu changes, greeted with open arms by some kids and suspicion by others, come as an increasing number of students rely on free or reduced-fee meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program. The program served 31 million children each school day in 2011, USDA said.
"For too many of America's school children, school lunch is the only balanced meal they will receive all day," said Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association. "School foodservice professionals are working hard to provide students with the healthiest meals to help them succeed in the classroom and beyond."
The SNA represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country.
Ford said the change that will be most obvious to students this fall is the half cup of fruit or vegetables that must be served with every school lunch.
Ford said the SNA is helping members find ways to reach the students using good customer service techniques.
"We offer a lot of choices," she said, and the samples help. "If they've never tasted squash before, we encourage the kids to try it," Ford told UPI. It may just be a slice of zucchini or a slice of squash, but it's a start, she said.
"There's no question it's changed how we do business," Ford said. School has just started but she's already hearing feedback from kids. "From my own perspective, the middle school child appears to be the most challenging."
Ford, who is director of food and nutrition services for Manatee County schools in Bradenton, Fla., said younger students and high school students seem to be more open to trying new the new menu items.
The SNA said a survey of 579 school districts found 94 percent are using some method to encourage students to try the new menu items, with more than 87 percent offering students free samples or developing taste tests that allow the students to provide feedback on new items.
In addition to produce offered in the traditional serving line, more than 55 percent of responding school districts have self-serve salad or produce bars.
Nearly 64 percent of respondents offer pre-packaged salads, 87 percent offer whole fruit and 67 percent offer packaged produce such as bags of baby carrots, grapes and sliced apples.
Another change is the use of local produce. Ford said the USDA has made it easier for schools to work with local farmers and more than 60 percent of respondents say they will purchase locally grown or raised items in the coming school year.
Pizza is still on the menu -- it's the most popular entree item in 42 percent of the school districts -- but 92 percent of respondents said they've moved to a whole-grain crust.
The healthier lunches, however, are cutting into the bottom line, with nearly 64 percent of respondents saying they had to raise prices an average 11 cents per meal to cover costs.
Procuring food that meets the new guidelines can be more challenging for smaller districts in rural areas where the menu planner, food buyer and cook may all be the same person. Larger districts have more buying power, she said. The smaller districts, however, are quicker to adopt farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs that take advantage of local produce.
Suzy Weems, chair of the department of family and consumer sciences in Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences, says school lunches are often healthier than home-packed ones, which all too often are "grab and go," containing such items as high-fat, high-salt chips.
"The Food and Drug Administration says school lunch participants are more likely to consume milk, vegetables and protein; and less likely to consume soft drinks and fruit drinks, which have fewer nutrients," she said.
Weems, a past chair of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics legislative and public policy committee, says the offering of more fruits and a broad selection of vegetables for children is one of the highlights of the standards.
"I believe that as children are offered a variety of attractive and flavorful nutrient-rich foods, they will learn to broaden their food choices -- and by doing that increase the balance of nutrients," she told UPI.
Weems says parents should encourage their children to be open to change and look for ways to "incorporate into their family meals at home the same sort of healthy choices the schools are providing."
Here's a sampling of what's on other school menu's this fall:
Shawnee (Okla.) Public Schools:
Chopped BBQ brisket on a bun
Orange Chicken with almonds and brown rice
Stir-fried Asian veggies
Arlington (Va.) Public Schools:
Chicken fajitas with peppers and onions on a whole grain Tortilla
Highline (Wash.) Public Schools:
Beef barley stew
Rosemary wheat roll
Provo (Utah) School District:
Angelica's Fiesta Salad with homemade tomatillo dressing
Fresh whole fruit
Andover (Mass.) Public Schools:
Lasagna and locally grown green leaf lettuce salad
Whole grain bread stick
Homemade chicken pot pie over a whole grain biscuit
Oven roasted butternut squash