Fourth-grader Shelby Wilkinson piled carrots on top of romaine lettuce during lunchtime Friday, and then drizzled on some ranch dressing.
The salad bar is new at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School as of April, and Shelby is one happy customer.
“Normally, there were not much choices for lunch, and now you can actually get salad — something healthy,” Shelby said.
Countywide and across the nation, students have more fruit and vegetable choices at lunch, because of changes that went into effect this year from the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Salad bars have been in Montgomery County schools for several years, but only recently have they been added to six elementary schools. Students on free and reduced-price meals previously had to pay the full price of a salad. They are now available under meal plans.
A student qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal if his or her family falls below a certain income level, and the federal government reimburses the school system for part of every free or reduced-price meal served. A reduced-price meal costs 40 cents. The full cost of a meal is $2.50 in elementary schools and $2.75 in middle and high schools.
The federal guidelines state that students must take a half-cup of fruit or vegetables when buying a school lunch, said Marla R. Caplon, director of food and nutrition services; if they don’t, the cafeteria staff must tell them to go back and get one.
New choices in Montgomery schools include cucumbers, spinach, beets and red and green pepper strips with hummus.
By following the rules, the school system will receive 6 cents more reimbursement per meal, Caplon said; last year, that would have totaled about $571,000.
But as lunches get healthier, they also get more expensive, and — to some — less appealing.
Some of Shelby’s classmates said the new, healthier chicken nuggets taste strange, and described the mesquite bone-in chicken as merely “a bone with soggy meat around it.”
In the cafeteria at Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Burtonsville on Monday, a group of girls they liked the bone-in chicken but struggled to name another tasty menu item.
The food is “good, but it is not as good as it used to be,” Raven Miller, an eighth-grader, said.
The extra fruit and vegetable options, and inflation, will cost the school system more. Last year each meal cost $3.53, and the school system lost about 76 cents for each free or reduced-price meal it served, Caplon said. This year, the lunches could each cost $4, depending on food costs throughout the year, and the school system could lose $1.16 for each free or reduced-price meal.
The department is funded by the school system’s enterprise fund; 55 percent of funds come from federal and state government grants, 27 percent from sales of reimbursable school meals and 17 percent come from sales of a la carte and snack items.
The change to less-processed beef and poultry last school year cost the school system 15 percent more, at $692,000; the switch to whole grains cost the school system 7 percent more, at $138,000; substituting skim milk and yogurt without high fructose corn syrup cost 10 percent more, at $350,000, according to a school system memo.
The change from white bread to wheat was a real deal-breaker for a group of girls at Banneker.
The girls also were disappointed that the chicken club sandwich doesn’t have cheese anymore and is on a kaiser roll.
Raven said she takes peaches, to satisfy her fruit requirement, but she normally doesn’t eat them.
“The hot sauce is the best thing in the cafe,” Raven said.
Alice Metrick, cafeteria manager at Kensington Parkwood, said she praises children that make salads when they get to the front of her line.
“I say, ‘That is such a gorgeous salad. I would love to sit down and eat that,’ ” she said. “I only have a few seconds with each kid, but it is a chance to say something to them.”
Participation in the school meal program so far this year has gone up for students who receive free or reduced-priced meals and has gone down for students who pay full price, Caplon said, but she thinks it is more because of the economy than the school’s offerings.
“If I was a parent in this economy, I may limit the amount of times I pay $2.50,” she said.
The school system has faced criticism about the nutrition of its meals. Last year, the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight released a report that said the school system lagged behind some other districts when it came to offering fresh and healthy food. In Anne Arundel County, for example, students had all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables with school meals.
One of the projects that will add fresh, healthy choices is the 2014 completion of a new food distribution building for the Department of Food and Nutrition Services, said Marla Caplon, the department’s director.
The new building, in Gaithersburg, will have an added 19,000 square feet, for 77,000 square feet of space for storage, production and offices.
It will allow more room for production of prepackaged salads and recipe planning and testing, Caplon said.
“What we’re trying to do is increase accessibility to healthful meals, to increase the number of healthful choices that students will make,” Caplon said.
About 26,000 meals are packed a day in the current building, near Derwood — which opened in 1982, said Tom Davey, a warehouse specialist.
The school system serves 35,000 breakfasts and 60,000 lunches daily, Caplon said.
The only sweeping change the school system made this year was changing the white bun for the hamburger to a whole-wheat bun, which cut 20 calories, to 130 calories per bun. This change will cost the school system 5 cents more per hamburger or cheeseburger; the buns now cost 18 cents each, she said.
The calories on several elementary menu items dropped this year — the cheese pizza is 310 calories instead of 400 calories; the whole-grain grilled cheese sandwich is 273 calories instead of 292.
When students do not like changes, such as the whole-wheat crust on pizza, the school system adjusts by adding choices for children, such as the cheese dippers, which children love, Caplon said.
Banneker Principal Ruschelle Reuben thinks, eventually, students will come around.
She said her students learn in their health classes the importance of eating a balanced and nutritious lunch.
“It will take time to really get them on board,” she said.
She emphasized the importance of students eating a good lunch.
“With the changes, they eat, get a balanced meal, and that translates into being alert in the classroom,” Reuben said.