Whole-grain macaroni and cheese was a bust.
Pinto beans? Kids curled their lips.
Making room on the tray for a required fruit or vegetable not so savory.
A year after the federal government rushed in new healthful food guidelines for school lunches, demand at cafeterias in Boise, Meridian and statewide is down as schools trimmed meat portions, inserted legumes into the menu once a week and put extra emphasis on whole grains.
Last year, the pizza tasted like cardboard, acknowledged Jean Dean, Meridian schools nutrition services supervisor.
Across the country, school districts watched kids abandon cafeterias as the $11 billion National School Lunch Program which reimburses schools for meals served instituted more stringent rules on what could be served.
Isolated cases have been reported this year of districts leaving the program because losses from decreased lunch purchases were greater than the government reimbursements.
No Idaho public school system has left the program, said Colleen Fillmore, Child Nutrition Program director for the State Department of Education.
Exiting the program makes little economic sense for Meridian or Boise schools because of the money each gets from the U.S. Department of Agriculture largely reimbursement for meals served to low-income students. Federal reimbursement covers $6 million of Boises $9 million food service budget; in Meridian it pays for $5 million of the districts $9.5 million budget.
TAKE YOUR VEGGIES
Better nutrition has been on the radar for years, and Idaho and its schools already were moving in that direction. In 2009, the Idaho Department of Education set new dietary standards that called for limiting fats, salt and sugar and increasing whole grains in school meals.
But federal regulations adopted the summer before they went into effect for the 2012-13 school year gave schools little opportunity to prepare kids for the change, said Peggy Bodnar, Boise School District supervisor of food and nutrition services.
Rules include the requirement that students must have a fruit or vegetable before they clear the cashier.
You know if you tell children they have to take fruit (or vegetable) on their plate, it doesnt go over very well, said Bodnar.
To make it work, Meridian School District has purchased fresh fruit. It pays $16 for a pack of nine cantaloupes for kids trays. About half of it winds up in the trash, said Dean.
Watermelon, which costs about $4.50 a melon, does better.
HEALTH TRUMPS TASTE
A race to get products into cafeteria lines initially led some food companies to meet the dietary requirements, if not the taste preferences of kids eating the food, Bodnar said.
For example, whole-grain mac and cheese, with its brownish noodles. Its an adjustment, Bodnar said.
Other problems included rules on whole grains that led to hamburger buns that lacked the density and flavor kids like.
One mother called Dean to complain that the overall calorie intake was too little for her strapping football-player son, who was still hungry after lunch.
To keep the hunger pangs at bay, Dean says, the Meridian district is experimenting with an a la carte table where, for an extra price, students can buy a second helping of an entree for $2.
MORE EXPENSIVE, TOO
On top of all the changes, districts increased some prices as part of a government formula meant to assure that low-income reimbursements were not going to people who could pay.
Rising prices also reflect increased food costs, Fillmore said. State food services officials are working with districts on ways to lower costs and have created a team with expertise in financial management to help districts better manage their food services.
As districts start their second year under the guidelines with more new rules on ingredients such as sodium on the way life should be a little more appetizing in the cafeteria line, Dean and Bodnar say.
Food companies are putting the taste and eye appeal back into their products. White-colored whole grains are making their way into the schools which could remedy the brown mac-and-cheese problem.
Whole grain requirements are changing to give schools a better chance at a tasty hamburger bun. Meat allotments are increasing.
And students seem to be getting used to some of the new food they see in the cafeteria, even if they dont always see it at home or at their favorite burger joint.
Last year, by the end, we had them eating sweet potato fries that were made in the oven, said Dean. We had them beginning to eat more lettuce.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts