ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota students heading back to school in a few weeks are going to notice something different about their lunches.
To meet new federal guidelines, schools across the country are required to serve up healthier lunch-time fare. That means smaller portions of meat and protein, fewer calories and a new requirement that forces students to take more fruits and vegetables.
The stricter school lunch guidelines set forth by the government have led lunch directors like Jean Ronnei of the St. Paul School District to test new lunch tray figurations.
Ronnei, the district's director of nutrition, has spent the summer poring over recipes with her staff of dieticians.
"Fewer grains, controlled portions of meat, meat alternative, less sodium, no trans fats," she said of the new menu.
Given such changes, it's a sure bet that the first thing students are going to notice this fall is what's not on their plates.
The new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines limit student lunches to 650 calories for younger students, and 850 for those in high school.
That means smaller burgers and buns, and students can forget about topping that burger off with cheese.
Another change: lunch line workers will no longer be able to toss more bread or extra rice on students' plates to fill them up.
The new lunch is healthier, but cafeteria workers are already bracing for the inevitable calls from parents who will say their children are hungry because they're not getting enough meat and protein.
So what's the option for famished students? Simple: go crazy on fruits and vegetables.
Under the new federal guidelines, Ronnei said, students can eat as many fruits and vegetables as they want.
"Students that come through are going to need to fill up on fruits and vegetables because some of those other items they're used to eating just won't be there," she said.
The new federal rules go beyond encouraging students to choose healthy fruits and vegetables. They require them. That makes for half a cup of fruits and vegetables a day for elementary school students, three quarters of a cup for students in grades six through eight and a full cup for high school students.
Schools that plop fruits and veggies on trays will receive a new six-cent per meal reimbursement from the government. Whether students eat it, however, doesn't matter.
Among the students who may go for more fruits and veggies are seven-year old Aubrey Ross and nine-year old Kendall Ross, who attend Chelsea Heights Elementary in St. Paul. They love vegetables.
But the lunchroom insiders know what's going to happen this fall: kids who don't want to eat their veggies won't, regardless of the requirement.
"You should at least eat one or two pieces," Kendall said.
Among school officials, wasted food is one of the top concerns over the new federal lunch requirements.
That's in part because schools across the country have raised their lunch prices in recent years in anticipation of the new rules. Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those bought locally, cost more than the canned fruit cocktail that used to pass muster.
The Minnesota Department of Education has been working with schools all summer on the best way to convince students to eat the fruits and veggies they must take on their trays. They settled on a strategy of offering a wide variety.
"This year we'll be figuring out which menus work, which foods the kids like," said Debra Lukkonen, supervisor of school nutrition programs for the state Department of Education. "Let's push through this together and by May you'll have a really good menu."
Lukkonen is telling school officials that the first year of the new requirements might be tough. She suspects that that middle and high school students will protest the most over the new smaller bread and meat portions, and the forced vegetable and fruit servings.
But Lukkonen is confident that younger students, especially those just starting school, won't know lunchtime any other way and will grow into fruit and vegetable connoisseurs in coming years.