Still battle-scarred from the "chocolate milk wars," Joanne Styer, director of Montgomery County's school lunch program, is easing into whole-wheat bread. School cafeterias now serve grilled cheese sandwiches with one slice of whole-wheat and one slice of white bread.

To Styer, half a whole-wheat sandwich is better than no whole-wheat at all. She hopes students and their parents accept the grainier, more nutritious bread.

Yet, several years ago, when she tried to oust chocolate milk in favor of the plain variety, she says her phone "rang off the hook" with calls from parents who complained their children would not drink milk without cocoa sweeteners.

"Food is emotional and feeding children is very emotional," said Styer, seated in her Rockville office. On her desk is a package of whole-wheat hamburger buns she plans to introduce into the cafeterias.

Styer has just launched a campaign to cut down on salt, sugar and fat in cafeteria meals as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Medical Association. That means more fruit and less cake, more poultry and less beef on lunch trays.

About 80 percent of Montgomery County's 102,000 students buy their lunch in school cafeterias, according to Styer. Of those, about 65 percent purchase the lunch special, consisting of two ounces of protein, enriched or whole bread, three-quarters of a cup of fruit or vegetable, milk and dessert. The remainder buy a la carte items.

Of the $10.8 million school lunch budget, 64 percent comes from sales to children. The federal government subsidizes 28.7 percent and about 7 percent comes from local government sources. Children pay from 65 to 95 cents for a meal that costs the school from $1.25 to $1.50. Approximately 8,000 students receive free lunches or pay only 5 to 10 cents for them under a subsidized program.

"Actually we've been working at improvements for some time," Styer says, "But we're going gradually. We still have some youngsters used only to white bread, soda and Twinkies."

Four years ago, when U.S. Department of Agriculture studies on the cholesteral-clogged U.S. diet coincided with demands from a group of nutrition-conscious Montgomery County parents for lean, preservative-free, high-fiber lunches, Styer started carving starchy gravies and gooey desserts from the lunch menus.

Hamburgers and lasagne now contain beef with a maximum of 20 percent fat. Milk, chocolate or white, is low-fat.

"We encountered a lot of resistance on the low-fat milk," Styer recalls. "Parents accused us of serving 'chalk milk' to save money. They didn't understand the difference between lowfat and skim milk."

Although some high-carbohydrate die-hards may balk at broccoli and banana bread on lunch trays in place of hot dogs and cookies, some critics of the $10 million-a-year school lunch program -- including children -- believe Styer and her staff aren't moving fast enough to introduce more whole, natural foods into cafeterias.

"This," said 12-year-old Courtney Johnson, wrinkling her nose at her plastic lunch tray, "is not a nutritious lunch. About the only thing good for me on this tray is milk."

Courtney's lunch, also eaten that day by most of the students at Julius West Middle School in Rockville and other middle schools, consisted of a small steak and cheese sub on an enriched doughy white bun, frenchfries, a small cup of shredded lettuce and cookie. Unlike Courtney, most students at the long lunch tables washed their fries down with chocolate milk.

"Most of the kids don't eat the vegetable because it doesn't taste good," Courtney said. "We're not getting the four basic food groups. We should get juice and more vegetables instead of hot dogs and fries."

Nancy Sherman, head of the Montgomery County PTA's school lunch committee, feels there has been some improvement but not enough.

"The schools serve food they know kids will buy. They are not taking the responsibility of convincing kids what is really good food. So, of course, kids are buying chocolate milk and ice cream," she said.

Four years ago Sherman's group complained to the school board in a lengthy report about school lunches. Now, the 15-member committee is still waiting to see what changes take place, according to Sherman.

"But they are moving at a snail's pace," she said.

Styer and her staff say it is difficult to move quickly when you have to order 78,000 half pints of milk a day, 72 tons of ketchup a year, 18,000 pounds of cheese and 560 tons of meat a year for 132 school kitchens and four central kitchens.

Anything new has to be tested several times to see whether it will sell, Styer explains. Some things bomb, like the cranberry peanut butter popsicles Styer tried on some children last year. Other exotica, like tacos and sandwiches on Mideastern pita bread, prove successful and are worked into the menu.

"We do attempt to provide those items we know kids will enjoy. It doesn't do any good to provide menus when kids won't participate," she explained. "If we eliminate favorites like ice cream or chocolate milk, kids will bring it from home or buy it in grocery stores."

Styer and her staff plan a month's menus for elementary and secondary school six weeks in advance. "It takes that long to order the food," she said.

About 20 percent of the food used in Montgomery County school meals come from surpluses the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases from farmers. So, Styer explained, some months there'll be a lot of chicken. Other times, there'll be apples, apple sauce, apple cake, etc.

The number of students who patronize the school cafeteria tends to drop off in the higher grades, where kids can slip into their cars and whiz to the fast-food emporia lining major county roads, said Styer. So to woo the teenagers, high school cafeterias now feature trendy treats like salad bars and preservative-free popcorn as well as the tried and true hot meal menus.

But it may take more than that to satisfy affluent Montgomery County high school students.

"Here they ask for quiche," said Walt Whitman's food manager, Marty Strombotne, who must serve 1,500 students in an hour and 45 minutes."They want to be waited on and they want better quality. But they don't buy food in a store so they don't know what it costs."

Strombotne recalled that in one issue of the school newspaper, students compared the cafeteria unfavorably to a prominent Potomac restaurant. She wrote a blistering response pointing out the benefits of the school lunch program.

"I explained we were simply trying to provide nutritious food at a reasonable cost, not gourment meals," she said.

But, Strombotne added, Whitman students are receptive to innovation and she has been able to splice dishes like zucchini casserole and carrot soup into the regular bill of fare.

"There are so many different needs though," said Strombotne, who sports apple earrings and a knife-and-fork brooch on the lapel of her smock. "Girls are on diets and football players want to bulk up."

She spoons out some of the day's hot special -- turkey, stuffing, applesauce and rice pudding -- into a tray for herself as the students' lunch period ends, saying, "We always have kids who complain and they come in every day and buy a lunch."

At one table, students hurriedly finished their salads.

"It depends on you," said blonde Nancy Straicher, 17, when asked about her school lunch. "There are a lot of options. You can buy good food or you can buy junk. Unfortunately most kids buy junk."

Aside from the food, Styer, cafeteria staff members and students interviewed maintain that one of the biggest problems with school lunches is the caferterias themselves. Cavernous, noisy rooms with long rows of tables don't make for leisurely, pleasant meals, they all say.

Styer says she hopes to install planters and dividers to make the lunchrooms more home-like places where students can eat and talk with friends.

In the meantime, to avoid the crush, a group of girls at Whitman resort to eating in the bathroom, an atmosphere they say they find more appetizing than the cafeteria, where food and insults fly through the air with equal velocity. At lunchtime's end, Walt Whitman's cafeteria floor often looks like a compost heap.

"We're a bunch of spoiled, rich brats," acknowledged Tony Russo, 18, as he left the table to go to his next class. "We know it's all going to be picked up for us."