In the cafeteria line at an Arlington elementary school, most first-graders skipped the chef salad and the carrot sticks but grabbed up the purple packages of grape fruit snacks among the a la carte offerings.
Abby Raphael, PTA president at Arlington Science Focus School and the mother of two girls there, watched resignedly.
"It's candy -- it's not fruit," she said later, referring to the high corn syrup and sugar content.
Arlington schools, like many across the country, are struggling to find food that is nutritious and appealing to students. And parents are joining the effort, appalled by what their children can buy at lunch, such as Yoo-hoos and ice cream bars.
"I've told parents about this and their jaws drop," Raphael said, reading the fruit snack packet. "They have no idea about it, and why would they? It's not listed on the menu."
Food sold as part of a full lunch must include a certain amount of protein, vegetables and dairy products because it qualifies for federal reimbursement under the free and reduced-price lunch program for needy students. But the a la carte food meets much lower nutritional standards.
From a la carte offerings, high school and middle school students in Arlington can opt to make a lunch out of a large cup of french fries for $1.25, about half the price of a federally approved lunch. In some elementary schools, students can supplement their meals with an 11-ounce can of Yoo-hoo, with 180 calories and 28 grams of sugar, or a 6.75-ounce Sunny Delight, which has 100 calories and 22 grams of sugar but is only 5 percent fruit juice.
Even foods that count as entrees in the regular lunches can be heavy in fat and salt. A 3.5-ounce Smucker's Uncrustables pre-browned grillable cheese sandwich is 270 calories, with 11 grams of fat (6 of it saturated), and 1,020 milligrams of sodium, or 42 percent of the recommended daily allowance. An 2.8-ounce Uncrustables sandwich of peanut butter and grape jelly weighs in at 320 calories (150 from fat), with 16 grams of fat and 350 milligrams of sodium.
A la carte items are held to minimal federal standards -- the fruit juice in Sunny D, for example, is enough to qualify. "If there's any nutritional value at all, then it's okay," said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food service providers across the nation. "The classic example would be a Snickers bar. It has nuts in it, so it can be sold."
In Arlington, where parents have lobbied for more nutritious school food, the School Board plans to form a parent, student and staff advisory committee on cafeteria lunches and is considering hiring a nutrition consultant to vet food service operations.
"We all want to see whole grains. We all want to see vegetarian options. We all want to see lower salt and no trans fat, and have the a la carte menu much more accountable," county parent Linda Lee said.
Parents can show their children the fat and sugar content on the back of an item, she said, but that generally doesn't sink in as much as the bright, attractive front label. "First grade is a little early to be reading nutritional content but the perfect age to be marketed to," Lee said.
In the past five years, parents have become increasingly involved, Peterson said, and schools are responding.
Last year, Congress passed a law requiring every school system to have a wellness policy on nutrition by July 2006.
In Maryland, school systems are rushing to meet a state-mandated deadline in January for writing up nutrition plans, and most are adopting more stringent state-recommended rules for what can be served. The state's new guidelines ban a la carte foods that have more than 9 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar.
Virginia recently began a competition among school systems to find those that best meet state nutrition guidelines, which generally restrict junk food during the school day and allow only 100 percent fruit juice, water and low-fat milk to be sold.
The District will hold public forums in February to help establish standards.
But the battle does not stop with what adults decide kids should eat. Dietitian Sandra O'Connor, food service specialist for Arlington schools, said she has been adding more fruits and vegetables to cafeteria lines. Still, it is hard to get children to select them.
On a recent visit to a school where children were offered fresh grapes and strawberries, she said, she was amazed at how few children took the fruit.
"We have to teach our kids at home to make those good choices," O'Connor said. "You can't serve fast food at home and then expect the kids to come to school and make healthy choices."
Another big hurdle is financial: As government support has decreased, school food service programs face increasing pressure to be profitable -- a tall order when school lunches across the country cost an average of $1.54 in elementary schools and $1.77 in high schools.
"The last 10 to 15 years, as school districts have become more financially challenged all over the country, school lunch programs were told, 'Look, you're going to have to cover your costs from here on out,' " Peterson said.
A la carte offerings help do that. For instance, if Howard County adopts Maryland's new nutrition standards, it will lose about $1.8 million in a la carte sales. In Arlington, the system makes $1.23 million a year from regular school lunches and $836,434 from a la carte sales.
"I'm not going to tell you that if we don't sell Yoo-hoo, we're bankrupt," O'Connor said. But when adding up revenue, she said, "it does have a drastic effect."
Last year, when Arlington's secondary schools went from selling french fries a la carte every day to offering them three days a week, the system lost $150,000 in annual revenue. That, along with higher wages for cafeteria employees, tipped the food services into the red. "For the first time in almost as long as anyone can remember, we're supporting the school lunch fund with operating dollars," School Board Vice Chairman Mary H. Hynes said.
School lunches also face competition from vending machines and fundraising sales by athletic departments. Students can "go down the hall and buy the less nutritious stuff," Peterson said. So, rather than lose customers, cafeterias sell similar items. "It doesn't hurt them financially," he said, "it just hurts the kids nutritionally."
Still, parents say there must be a way for balance. "It's sort of like smoking," said Anastasia Snelling, a Yorktown High School parent. "There's a health side to it and there's an economic side. . . . You lose some revenue source for someone."
Snelling stood recently in the Yorktown cafeteria, watching students make their selections. The menu included barbequed pork sandwiches, potatoes and broccoli, and a salad bar offered peaches, cottage cheese and fresh spinach. But the most popular choice seemed to be fries.
"The other stuff is kind of gross here," said Amber Haling, 14, whose lunch was fries and milk.
Meanwhile, the struggle goes on to find healthful, appetizing dishes to serve for regular school menus. At Carl Sandburg Middle School in Fairfax County recently, students attended a taste party for potential new lunch items. They included vegetarian hot dogs, veggie pizzas and baked (not fried) potato wedges.
The students waxed poetic. "The spices are a symphony of flavors," Patrick Commons, 13, said of Hot Dog A. "It's definitely better than the turkey hot dog they serve." Asked what he thought it was made of, he said, "It might be turkey or pork; I'm not sure."
O'Connor said that in the past she has put out bids for whole wheat bread. Although no one bid on it last year, the system recently signed a contract for whole wheat buns for hot dogs and hamburgers. "Getting whole grain breads is very difficult," she said. "A lot of times, it's a matter of being able to find it and afford it."
Based on Virginia's new recommended guidelines, Arlington schools have raised their nutrition requirements for vendors and will not sign a new contract for Sunny Delight, O'Connor said, adding that the existing supply will be sold until it is depleted.
She said that the recent addition of 100 percent fruit juice smoothies in middle and high schools has been a success and that the system has changed the chips it sells from fried to baked and replaced regular pretzels with low-fat ones.
But any changes still must meet minimum calorie requirements. "Not every child out there is an overweight child; you have to keep that in mind," O'Connor said.
"Parents would love for me to offer all the tofu and the whole-grain this and the whole-grain that," she added. "But I have to work within budgetary guidelines -- and how slowly you have to work in terms of changing the entire habits of the kids."