Takoma Park Middle school students have the option of eating a regular hot lunch or buying, chips or other snacks on the side. (JUANA ARIAS/For The Washington Post)

It’s a tired old cliche: From lunch ladies with blue tresses and hairnets to references to “mystery meat” or a squirt of ketchup counting as a vegetable serving, we’ve all heard the jokes a thousand times. You know, the ones with a punch line about bad food in the school cafeteria.

Those stereotypes rub school cafeteria workers the wrong way. And they don’t reflect the reality of today’s nutrition-savvy, locally sourced cafeteria food.

In Prince William County this year, for example, one of the menu items is a “super food” salad with fresh blueberries, chopped kale and red cabbage. Montgomery County is establishing a 7,200-square-foot garden to grow its own produce. And in Alexandria, schools have begun serving sliced fruit instead of whole pieces to better appeal to their youngest customers and cut back on plate waste.

Take that, jokesters. Whatever your memories of school lunches decades ago may be, they’re not germane today, school nutrition directors say.

“It’s just one of those things that’s easy to target,” said Becky Domokos-Bays, director of school nutrition services for Alexandria City public schools. “No matter who you are, you can always complain about the food. Everybody’s an expert, because we all eat.”

(Melinda Beck for The Washington Post)

Tater tots and French fries are being replaced by fresh produce from school gardens. Chicken patties are baked, not fried, and have whole-grain breading. In some places, schools are returning to a cooking-from-scratch approach instead of warming up processed foods.

“Schools have really come a long way in terms of getting more locally grown produce on the menu, catering to allergies and intolerances, trying to diversify their menus to appeal to an increasingly diverse student body, and trying to get creative in making these healthier choices appealing, as well,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a national group that represents the people who work in the school food industry.

More than 30 million children at more than 95,000 schools in the United States buy school lunch each day, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. That’s more than 5 billion lunches a year — all of which must include low-fat milk, whole grains, protein, fruits and vegetables — since new regulations went into effect in 2012. They have to do it for about $3 per meal and move hundreds of hungry kids through their lines in a couple of hours each day.

If you think that’s easy, think again.

“I thought very smugly, ‘School food, how hard can it be?’ ” said Tony Geraci, executive director for child nutrition for Shelby County schools in Tennessee. Geraci, the focus of a new PBS documentary called “Cafeteria Man,” had worked as a chef but switched to the school food industry after breaking his back. As a single father, he liked the idea of having the same schedule as his three kids. He quickly found out he was wrong about school food.

“It’s the hardest industry I’ve ever worked in in my entire life,” he said. “It’s the most regulated industry, and there’s more pushback around food than you can imagine.”

Parents struggle to plan a nutritious dinner on which two or three kids can agree. So planning one for 700 kids seems like a logistical nightmare — particularly when you are required to follow strict guidelines. In addition to the 2012 standards that called for fruits and vegetables with every meal and set calorie minimums and maximums, new standards rolled out this summer further reduce the sodium in school lunches and require that all of the grains on the menu, including breading on meat products, be rich in whole grains.

“It’s very hard; there are all kinds of demands on us,” said Serena Suthers, director of nutrition services for Prince William County schools. “But that’s okay, because we want to meet them. If you come and have a meal, and judge it, if I asked ‘What do you think of that meal for $3.35 [the cost a parent or faculty member pays for lunch in the county]?’ I think you’d come away saying, ‘I’m impressed.’ ”

School nutrition experts are bridging the gap between the foods many kids seem to gravitate toward — pizza, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese — and what they should eat by offering more nutritious versions of those preferred foods, with a heaping side of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Our goal is to provide healthy food that is [affordable] to families, but it has to be food items that kids will eat,” said Marla Caplon, director of school food services for Montgomery public schools. “So we take a slice of pizza, but it’s made with whole-grain crust, low-sodium tomato sauce and low-fat cheese. It’s healthier than what they would get at a restaurant, but kids will eat it.”

For Geraci in Tennessee, that means taking traditional Southern vegetables that kids know, such as okra and greens, and cooking them differently so that they are flavorful but also more nutritious. You aren’t going to get rid of pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, he said. But he’s serving flatbread pizzas that the students have designed. The hamburgers are covered with a chili sauce made with legumes. The hot dogs come with red beans and rice.

Overcoming those kinds of challenges and filling kids’ bellies with nutritious options is why the people who run school cafeterias happily show up at work before daybreak to start their jobs.

Christina Herndandez, the cafeteria manager at Forest Oak Middle School in Montgomery, arrives at 5:30 a.m. to start preparing the day’s offerings for about 600 customers. She’s constantly gauging their choices so she can adjust supply to meet demand that day. So, if they are down to 10 cheeseburgers after the first lunch period, she knows she needs to make a larger batch for the next group of students.

Hwasun Bailey, the cafeteria manager at Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas, dishes out nearly 600 breakfasts and 780 lunches every day. Workers serve the breakfast in about 15 minutes as the students head to class, then lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It takes two lines to move the kids through quickly, and she is constantly monitoring them for backups. If the line gets too long, she pulls staff members from the cooking area to the front to get things moving.

The students at Yorkshire love the popcorn chicken and the orange slices and grapes but aren’t too keen on the refried beans, Bailey said. She said she puts up posters in the cafeteria to reinforce the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day. A lot of it, she said, is exposure, or seeing their friends try something. One mother sought her out at an open house, she said, to express gratitude that her vegetable-averse son had started eating broccoli after trying it at school.

Hernandez said she tastes every new product herself before offering it to “my kids.” And she lives for the smiles on those preteen faces.

“I wouldn’t change my job for anything,” Hernandez said. “It’s middle school, so they’re just starting to go through that difficult phase, but the kids are good, respectful kids. I just keep smiling at them, and eventually they’re going to turn around and smile back at you.”

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