Carl Collier has served cafeteria food to students for more than a decade.
But the tables were turned Thursday when servers offered Collier a taste of the food that will be in Bibb County school cafeterias this year -- and Collier was impressed.
“This is going to be a change for students. They’re going to like it much better,” Collier said as he sampled low-sodium French fries and whole grain Rice Krispies treats. “And it’s much healthier.”
For the first time in years, cafeteria employees, parents and students were invited to sample some of the new food that will be served in school cafeterias. It was an effort to gather feedback and give cafeteria workers a chance to become familiar with the food they will be dishing up.
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By noon, a line of people -- mainly cafeteria workers -- stretched outside the Howard High School cafeteria doors. Tables of food prepared by national vendors were waiting for them, and vendors offered a sample of items from chicken tenders to granola.
But that food has changed from previous years. Under new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, cafeteria food is required to be healthier. The USDA rolled out its new guidelines in 2012 and, since then, school districts have been working to offer healthier options. This year, Bibb schools will offer about 15 new items.
Most foods are now low in sodium and sugar, and are baked rather than fried and are fresh or whole grain. The challenge is to make sure the meals are tasty enough to appeal to children.
“We’re not going to be feeding garbage cans,” said Cleta Long, the district’s nutrition director. “We’re going to be feeding students.”
As they handed out an assortment of lunch and breakfast items, vendors said food companies have developed products that are both nutritious and tasty.
“We have to follow the regulations, and we have to reformat our items to meet those requirements,” said Ula Kalinowski, a representative of Nardone Brothers Pizza. She stood behind her table in an apron, serving slices of garlic bread and buffalo chicken pizza.
“For schools, the most important thing is participation,” she said. “Even when you have to meet the requirements, you have to have the quality.”
Cooks have found creative ways to make healthy food tasty enough to interest students. For example, they have incorporated more spices and seasoning into their recipes to liven up the dishes, Long said.
“We all need to cut back on sodium, but in order to keep the food tasting good, we have to use spices,” she said. “We know (students) are going to be healthy, and it’s going to enhance their learning abilities.”
As they balanced plates of hamburgers, cookies and meatballs, taste testers agreed the food is generally more appealing than in previous years. Additionally, healthier food is not more difficult to cook. In fact, the preparation seems easier, said Deloris McNeill, a nutrition employee at Bloomfield Middle School.
“The kids will like all of this,” she said, “especially the meatballs. They’re spicy, and kids love spicy food.”
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 744-4331.