THIS back-to-school season marks the biggest overhaul in school lunch menus in more than a decade. The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 and taking effect this school year, mandates big changes across the board that have some school cafeterias scrambling.
To no one's surprise, the law continues the trend away from "mystery meat" - with or without its "pink slime" filler. Districts nationwide are adding whole grains, trimming calories and saturated fat, doubling the vegetable servings and bumping up fruit availability while eliminating 2-percent and full-fat milk.
The food team at the School District of Philadelphia is up to the challenge. Many of Philly's public schools are already a step ahead: This will be the fifth year of a farm-to-school partnership with The Food Trust and Fair Food that will now expand to 32 schools, bringing local produce to kids under a Community Supported Agriculture-like system.
"The whole country is wrestling with change," said Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services for the district. "It's a problem that requires creative solutions."
Alyssa Moles of The Food Trust believes that the district has been smart in its implementation. "People want change overnight, but the district is putting changes in place that are sustainable, making sure the programs can continue in the future."
To that end, the farm-to-school program, "Eat Fresh Here," is supplemented by an education component, "Eat Right Now," that pulls in assistance from local groups. "It's rich partnering that helps us move forward," Grasela said.
(Parents of Philadelphia School District students who have questions or concerns about their schools' meals can call 215-400-FOOD or email email@example.com.)
Making healthy choices like whole-fruit snacks available outside the lunchroom is another component, as is limiting competition from unhealthy sources like junk-food vending machines, Grasela said.
District communications manager Amy Virus related how, six years ago, Philadelphia crafted one of the first policies in the nation to restrict junk-food vending.
You won't find Coke or Pepsi machines in Philly public schools, she said, "nor ice teas, lemonades or non-100 percent-fruit juice." Seven school buildings instead have Vend-Natural machines offering healthy (or at least healthier) snacks and Odwalla juices.
But the healthiest meals in the world could languish on trays. "We have to make sure the child takes the fruit and vegetables . . . and eats them," Grasela said.
One group that's had success in generating student buy-in is the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, whose director, Amie Hamlin, underscores the challenge: "You can't just change the food and expect them to eat it; you have to educate the students and involve them in the changes."
The Coalition has a 30-second-a-day curriculum, Wellness Wake-up Call, that's making waves in New York and in schools outside the state. "It's a series of registered-dietitian-written, easy-to-digest sound bites that are delivered over the school's PA system daily."
But schools still need more help from the USDA to stop things like bologna and sugary cereals from crowding out healthier choices on school-cafeteria plates.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has for years pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture in this direction. In 2010, the group proposed a new food-group visual, the "Power Plate." After a year of consideration, the USDA announced an eerily similar idea, the "MyPlate" icon.
In a possibly related move - and please don't tell Big Meat; you saw the freakout over that innocuous "Meatless Monday" memo - school-lunch guidelines for the first time allow tofu to be served as a meat alternate, something the vegan-friendly doctors' group has long suggested.
PCRM is among groups pushing the USDA to remove cow's milk as a kids' lunch requirement. Ditching dairy may still sound like heresy to some. But sorting out nutrition myth from science is an ongoing educational process. Improving lunches has to involve everybody in the community. There's much to discuss and much to work out; let's get sharpening those pencils!
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.