On the same day federal officials announced sweeping changes for school lunches, dietitian Stephanie Adin hoped to find the perfect biscuit at Helbing Elementary School in Fort Worth.
It had to be fluffy and moist, use whole-grain flour and -- most important -- taste good enough for students to eat.
On Wednesday, youngsters taste-tested samples of honey wheat biscuits that the Fort Worth school district is considering adding to its menu. It's hit-and-miss finding whole-grain options for schools, Adin said.
"On some things, it's easy to go with whole grains -- like our whole-wheat hamburger buns," Adin said. "This year, we started offering a new whole-grain pizza, and that's going just fine. But we haven't put biscuits on the menu yet because the ones we've tried so far are just too dry. But the students overwhelmingly liked these. So it looks good."
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Adin's timing is perfect.
Schools nationwide will be looking for even more whole-grain options to meet new nutritional guidelines announced Wednesday, the first nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years.
Beginning with the 2012-13 school year, most offerings will have less sodium and come with a wider selection of fruits and vegetables on the side, first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced during a visit with students at an elementary school in Alexandria, Va.
The guidelines also set a minimum and maximum calorie intake per day based on student age.
Obama, joined by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, said youngsters will learn better if they don't have growling stomachs.
The new rules aren't as aggressive as the Obama administration had hoped. Last year, Congress blocked the Agriculture Department from making some of the desired changes, including limiting french fries and pizzas.
A bill passed in November would require the department to allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. The initial draft of the department's guidelines, released a year ago, would have prevented that. Congress also blocked the department from limiting potatoes to two servings a week. The final rules have incorporated those directions from Congress.
Among those who had sought the changes were potato growers and food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools. Conservatives in Congress called the guidelines an overreach and said the government shouldn't tell children what to eat. School districts also objected, saying some requirements go too far and would cost too much.
The new guidelines apply to lunches subsidized by the federal government. A child nutrition bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 will help districts pay for some of the increased costs. Some of the changes will take place in September; others will be phased in.
The guidelines will limit the total calories in an individual meal and require that milk be low in fat. Flavored milks will have to be nonfat.
Vilsack said companies are reformulating many of the foods they sell to schools in anticipation of the changes.
The subsidized meals affected by the guidelines are served for free or at a low cost to low-income children and have long been subject to government nutrition standards.
The 2010 law will extend nutrition standards to other school foods that aren't subsidized by the federal government.
Those standards, while expected to be similar, will be written separately.
Nutritionists and cafeteria managers at several Tarrant County school districts said they are reviewing the new rules. Some cafeterias are already adding more fruits and vegetables to lunch menus. In 2004, schools in the Carroll district started offering a daily chef salad with about 3 cups of vegetables to students through eighth grade. High school cafeterias set up a salad bar every day.
This school year, Carroll's child nutrition department got a $50,000 state grant to launch To Your Health, an educational program to promote good nutrition, focusing on students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Cafeteria workers and two college interns work with children before school and during lunch, having them sample fruits and vegetables and discuss the nutritional value and origin of foods. Today, for example, students at Walnut Grove Elementary School will sample different types of apples, said Mary Brunig, Carroll's director of child nutrition services.
In February, Carroll officials plan to add a broccoli casserole to the menu.
Students tested broccoli in recent weeks, first eating it raw with ranch dressing and then steamed and topped with Parmesan cheese.
"We would pass along colanders and let them touch it and smell it. We showed them how to wash it, shake it and get it strained," said Kerry Haitz, who heads Carroll's child nutrition education grant program. "They literally sat there and pounded on the tables, saying 'more, more.' I thought it was an Oliver Twist movie."
The menu at Mansfield school district campuses includes pizza made from whole-grain crust and low-fat mozzarella cheese along with whole-grain bread and pastas.
Chef's salads with low-fat dressings and fresh fruits and vegetables are offered daily, said Gaylan Mathis, director of student nutrition.
In the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, salad bars have been added at two elementary schools, and plans call for more to open next year.
"The bottom line is we want to provide healthy options," said Mary Beth Ratzloff, director of child nutrition for the district.