Healthy school lunches face tough taste test

Districts struggle to meet new USDA guidelines for meals and snacks.

GAINESVILLE, Ga.—Students in Gainesville, Georgia, are likely eating a better lunch than you today. On the menu in their cafeterias? Chicken salad on a bed of spinach with strawberries and Mandarin oranges. Boneless wings. Brunch for lunch.

Roughly 76% of students in Gainesville City Schools qualify for free or reduced-cost meals under the National School Lunch Program. Since the program's nutritional guidelines went into place in 2012, school administrators have been getting creative with their food program to create meals children like.

"Taste testing is where it's at," said Penny Fowler, the district's director of school nutrition. "They're your customers. It's like running a business."

Fowler said her team has worked hard to implement the new guidelines, which are entering a third school year this fall. The ultimate goal is to reduce childhood obesity, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in 30 years.

Gone are the days of mystery meats and grilled cheese on white bread. Instead, participating schools in the federal lunch program are required to serve skim or low-fat milk, add more whole grains, include a fruit and vegetable at each meal and prepare food with zero grams of trans fat per serving. Calorie and sodium limitations are also in place.