SALT LAKE CITY — The sizzle of broccoli and beef stir fry greeted students filing in for lunch at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.
Cries of "whoa" and "cool" sounded as students spotted chefs frying up the fresh food at a temporary chef's station
"I think the kids are really digging it," said Jeff Gratton, head chef for Granite School District.
The pilot program at Woodrow Wilson Elementary is one of many that Granite and other districts are implementing to make nutritious school lunches more appealing to students.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires schools nationwide to offer meals that meet specific nutritional guidelines. This includes offering one fruit or vegetable per meal, serving food with whole grains and protein, and meeting minimum and maximum calorie guidelines.
Participation in school lunches dropped statewide since the act went into effect in fall 2012, according to Kim Loveland, assistant director of school lunch at the Utah State Office of Education.
That caused state and district education officials concern.
"It's not nutrition if the kids don't eat it," Loveland said.
Schools throughout the state have "worked pretty hard" and have been "proactive" in providing a wide range of healthy food for students, she said.
"If you get proper nutrition, that's just going to give your brain a boost and your body a boost," Loveland said.
Officials in Jordan School District ran a campaign during the 2012-13 school year to help educate students and parents of the components of a balanced meal.
Initial observations showed that students had a good idea of healthy components, but also had some progress to make.
Of 166 students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, 90 percent were able to correctly identify carrots as red/orange vegetables and apple slices as fruit. However, 72 percent identified yogurt as a fruit, along with 14 percent who said the same for Jell-O.
Even if schools add new guidelines, the habits will not stick if students are not educated about the reasons for them, according to Katie Bastian, dietitian for Jordan School District.
Bastian created an education initiative in the district, placing posters in schools and visiting students in classrooms. Between fall 2012 and spring 2013, she found that students were throwing away fewer fruits and vegetables after their lunch meals.
The chef's station is one of many initiatives in Granite School District. Others include an A to Z salad bar, featuring vegetables starting with different letters of the alphabet, and four-course meals that Gratton brings to various classrooms to help students learn about new types of food.
The district serves lunch to about 70 percent of its student population, averaging about 48,600 per school day or 8.6 million meals per year, according to Rich Prall, Granite School District director of food services.
In the 2012-13 school year, the district met "a lot of customer resistance," Prall said, because the federal regulations were not "customer focused."
Original guidelines put a maximum on the amount of grain and protein that schools could offer through lunch programs per week. At that point, schools could not offer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a popular item, because the protein and grain amounts did not meet meal requirements, Prall said.
Once federal guidelines removed the grain and protein maximum, the district saw an increase in school lunch participation, he said.
Canyons School District began implementing healthy food practices when it opened in July 2009, according to Sebastian Varas, the district's director of nutrition services. The district offered whole wheat grains and a variety of fruit and vegetables.
"That really paved the way for the (federal) changes," he said.
Varas said he tries to find foods the students like, such as pizza or fries, and cook them in healthy ways that are appealing to students.
"You can have the most healthy lunch, but if (the students) don't like it, it's pointless," he said.
Part of Canyons District's success has come from its educational efforts, Varas said.
"Any opportunity we have to educate the public and the student, we take," he said.
This year, Varas and his team have adopted a jungle theme. They have created games for students in the district to help them learn about nutrition.
"They're playing, but they're learning at the same time," he said.
District officials have tested the taste of their food by soliciting feedback from a panel of students in grades K-12. They then try to create a menu that matches these preferences.
The success of such programs is evident in the rising numbers of school lunch participation, Loveland said.
Statewide, school meal participation is up 3 percent from last year. In August, schools served 99,000 more meals than they did in August 2012, and in September they served 24,000 more meals than the same month last year.
"It's better than ever before," Varas said.
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