In the pre-lunch calm Thursday, Schoo Middle School’s cafeteria was a colorful array of healthiness: carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes, peaches and melons and grapefruit, plums and bananas and big red apples glistening under florescent lights.

Behind the new fruit and veggie bar -- now offered at all Lincoln Public Schools high schools, most middle schools and nearly one-third of the elementary schools -- the cafeteria looks little like it did three years ago.

Baked chicken nuggets, lasagna and garlic bread are still on the menu, but Thursday’s nuggets were covered in whole wheat crumbs, the lasagna made with low-sodium sauce and whole wheat noodles. Sweet and sour meatballs come with brown rice.

The baked-from-scratch garlic rolls are also whole wheat, and there’s a daily vegetarian option.

In a cooler nearby are pre-packaged chef salads and the few a la carte options still available: ice cream bars and pudding. There’s soy milk in addition to the regular stuff. And the chips are baked or reduced-calorie.

At high schools, the Subway sandwiches and CiCis pizza offered a la carte are gone, replaced with “smart slice” pizza from Domino’s -- the only fast-food option LPS could find that fit new federal guidelines.

There are cookies, much smaller now than they used to be, and made with applesauce. The chocolate cake is sans frosting.

This is the new school lunchroom, the result of a three-year effort to offer more healthy school lunches and comply with the controversial new nutrition guidelines promoted by Michelle Obama.

Those efforts earned the LPS nutrition services department a Golden Carrot Award this week, an annual award from the Physicians Committee, a nonprofit medical organization of 12,000 doctors that promotes healthful plant-based diets for disease prevention.

The organization was particularly impressed with LPS's new fruit and veggie bars -- supplemented with some local produce -- and the now daily vegetarian options.

LPS was the only public school to win the award, shared with private schools in California and Arizona. About 20 schools applied. The award comes with $1,500 for the nutrition services program.

It hasn’t been an easy transition. For one thing, providing healthier options costs more, though food service at LPS remains self-supporting, unlike programs in some districts, said Jessie Coffey, LPS nutrition specialist.

About 27,000 students eat school lunch at LPS, a 3 percent increase over last year. That’s about the same as the enrollment increase but means participation hasn’t dropped -- a big problem for some school districts around the country.

And the new nutrition rules, with restrictions on calories, fat and sodium, make it tough to create meals that kids want to eat.

“It’s really hard,” Coffey said. “It’s not nutritious till it’s eaten.”

The transition to whole wheat bread was pretty easy, she said, especially since the cafeteria workers bake their own.

And the switch from salad bars to fruit and veggie bars has been popular, too, Coffey said.

They decided to switch, she said, because regulating what kids took from the salad bar to ensure their plates complied with federal guidelines was tough, Coffey said. Plus, only about 10 percent of the students chose the salad bar.

Now if they want salads, they take the ones the cafeteria employees make and put in the cooler.

They can add stuff from the fruit and veggie bar, and kids like the fact that they can pick and choose what they want, Coffey said. The new guidelines require students get two vegetable servings and one fruit serving.

Eighth-graders Kassidy Renoe and Jess Baker both said they liked the fruit and veggie bar because they can choose what they want. And they like having more fresh fruit and vegetable options.

They were not so enthusiastic about the healthier entrees. Both planned to take the chicken nuggets, politely turning up their noses at the whole-wheat pasta lasagna.

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“It just doesn’t taste very good, there’s not a whole lot of flavor,” Baker said.

The best school lunch offering, both girls agreed, was the chicken sandwich. The worst? Macaroni and cheese, which is really macaroni and rotini, since nutrition specialists couldn’t find elbow macaroni in whole wheat. And it’s made with reduced-fat cheese.

Coffey is sympathetic on the macaroni and cheese front, and wants to find ways to make the healthier food more flavorful.

She’s a fan of most of the changes, she said, and is all for making healthier lunches. But the reduced sodium requirements have really hurt in the flavor department.

Some years ago, when LPS took pop out of the schools, students from one high school would go down to the convenience store and buy pop, then sell it out of their lockers, black-market style, Coffey said.

Now some students smuggle in individual salt packets from fast-food restaurants.

But LPS nutrition specialists will keep trying, she said. The district has applied for a farm-to-table grant that would allow them to pilot a local products day at five schools.

They’re looking for ways to make food kids want to eat, because in the end, healthy offerings don’t mean much if kids don’t eat them.

It requires the work of some 450 cafeteria workers, and the nutrition services department’s 14-member team. 

"It's a group effort," Coffey said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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