Middle school students at Christ the King School in Richland crowded around the fruit and salad bar this week.
Some students tried to peek over their classmates for a glimpse at the day's selection of cut strawberries, apple slices, oranges, bananas, kiwi and fresh vegetables. The fruit and veggie choices were meant to complement the pepperoni salad, chicken patty or hot dog on a whole grain bun already on their lunch tray.
"Oh! They have kiwi! They have kiwi!" one seventh-grade girl said as she waited in line.
It's a far cry from what kitchen manager Angela Huber expected when the school launched its weeklong pilot lunch program.
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"They've embraced it. They love it," she said of the experiment.
The school decided Friday to go with the selection of healthier entrees and sides for the 2012-13 school year and is considering implementing it before the end of the current school year.
The healthier selections are required to meet changing federal nutrition guidelines. Public and private schools and school districts receiving federal aid for meal programs must make most of the changes by the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year.
Some school officials said the changes could help fight childhood obesity and its associated health issues, from diabetes to adolescent heart problems. They note that most students like the new menus, despite no longer having traditional lunch fare, such as tater tots and cookies.
There still is the question of whether schools can handle the increased costs associated with fresher, healthier options.
"It's good for kids to eat better, but this is another unfunded mandate," said Leslee Caul, spokeswoman for the Pasco School District.
President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010.
It was the first major overhaul of the country's school lunch program since it was augmented in the mid-1960s.
The federal government will provide $4.5 billion in new funding, primarily to cover increased coverage of free and reduced price meals and after-school meals to at-risk children.
Before the act, schools had to provide an 8-ounce serving of milk, 2-ounce serving of meat or meat alternative and a quarter cup of fruits or vegetables at lunch.
The new guidelines are more rigid:
* Chocolate milk must be fat-free while unflavored milk can be fat-free or 1 percent fat content only.
* Up to 1 cup of fruit and 1 cup of vegetables must be provided each day.
* There must be a variety of vegetables provided weekly, from dark green leafy ones to legumes.
* By July, half of the grains offered must be whole grain-rich. All grains must be whole grain-rich by mid-2014.
* Calorie limits have been set for meals, along with targets for lower sodium levels and a ban on trans fats.
Some districts anticipated the changes coming with the president's signature more than a year ago. Caul said Pasco schools already use whole grain breads, provide water at lunchtime and meet the new milk requirements. Seven Pasco elementary schools provide fruits and vegetables as part of a school snack outside of lunch.
Food management company Sodexo runs the meal programs for the Kennewick, Richland and Columbia school districts. Nutrition managers said they implemented changes they saw as necessary for student health before the new guidelines were drafted. Richland and Kennewick no longer serve French fries, have dropped desserts, are offering more fruits and vegetables, and are trying out leaner recipes for traditional favorites, such as pizza.
"We've worked to be ahead of the curve when it comes to nutrition," said Sam Schick, nutrition services director for Kennewick schools.
There is some leniency in the new guidelines. Schools may continue to offer a standard meal to all students, or they can offer a variety of foods to students and have them select what they want.
That is the route Christ the King is trying. Huber, the school's kitchen manager for 14 years, said before this week, she provided a "traditional" lunch to all students. A hamburger, half cup of fries, a serving of canned fruit and a cookie for dessert was a typical lunch.
The new format provides a variety of entres, from a chicken sandwich on a whole grain bun to whole grain pizza to various salads. There's also a variety of fruits and vegetables -- fresh and processed -- available.
"I'd prefer to have (healthier options) than just cookies," said Mariah Boes, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Christ the King.
A traditional format, Huber said, would have resulted in more food waste because kids would have received certain foods and nothing else. Giving students an option avoids that problem and ensures they still want to eat something, she said.
The new guidelines have their challenges. Pasco put in new equipment for a salad bar and to prepare and store fresh produce. Caul said the district also is struggling to reduce sodium levels because many of the foods, including those from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, contain lots of sodium.
Using fresh food and higher quality ingredients instead of processed food costs more too. Huber said she paid $50 more for whole wheat buns for Monday's lunch.
"I think the law is phenomenal," she said of the new guidelines, but "I'm faced with trying to keep the cost of lunch down and provide a healthy meal."
Schick said Sodexo only would get another 6 cents per lunch served as part of the increased federal subsidy, but the costs of providing healthier meals would outstrip that.
Lorraine Cooper, Kennewick School District spokeswoman, said the district will consider at its April 18 meeting a 5-cent increase for breakfast and 10-cent increase for prepared lunches to cover increased costs.
Pasco schools get more money for their meal programs than other districts because of the high number of students receiving discounted meals. Caul said Pasco is waiting for federal authorities to say how much the district would receive before deciding to raise prices, although the cost of breakfast is expected to go up more than a 25 cents next year.
Students appear to be embracing the new menus. Officials in Richland and Kennewick said meal counts are up since they made their offerings healthier, and there is less wasted food.
Denise Christensen, Richland's nutrition services director for four years, said there hasn't been much complaint about less junk food being available.
"We have not done desserts since I've been here. The kids don't miss them. They don't even really ask for them," she said.