Schools here and throughout America will begin serving healthier meals with the start of the academic year, and everyone is awaiting the verdict of 32 million spork-wielding food critics.

How will often-finicky schoolchildren react to increased fruits and vegetables; more whole grains; reduced amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium; and no more whole milk, among other changes?

Influencing the outcome will require a sizable stick, served up with the carrots.

If children don't include a fruit or vegetable with their lunch, they will either have to pay full price for it or not eat at all, according to new rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program in 101,000 schools.

In a school district such as Philadelphia, where 77 percent of the students eat free or reduced-price meals, that could have major consequences.

"This is a historic change with huge impact," said Alyssa Moles, Farm to School program coordinator with the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit that promotes access to nutritious food. "It's big and almost scary. There are a lot of new pressures in the cafeteria."

At the core of the first substantive changes to school- meal nutrition standards in 15 years is an effort to improve the health and well-being of all children, said Karen Castaneda, a dietitian and nutritionist who works as director of nutritional services for the Lower Merion School District.

"These changes are a wonderful thing," Castaneda said. "A driving force behind them is the rising rate of childhood obesity."

The most significant change, nutrition experts agree, is the increase in fruits and vegetables in a school lunch.

Before this school year, one-half to three-quarters of a cup of fruit and vegetables per day, combined, was the standard.

Starting now, however, school districts will have to serve three-quarters of a cup to one cup of vegetables, plus one-half to one cup of fruit per day.

"Students have gotten away from eating fruits and vegetables every night at home," said Keith Meloni, director of food and nutrition for the Pennsauken School District. "It was a challenge to get them to try these things in the past. . . . But now they have to take them."

It's the "have to" that's different, and it's especially significant for students who get free or reduced-price meals.

In the past, students could eat a meal without having to select a fruit or vegetable. But now, students are required to pick one or face paying full price ($2 in Philadelphia) or not eating.

The USDA is backing the new rules with a tough policy: If a child's free or reduced-price meal (40 cents here) doesn't include a fruit or vegetable, the school district will not be reimbursed for the price of the meal.

Will this mean that students will go hungry or that their parents will go broke? Probably not, Castaneda said.

"Kids will come to the understanding very quickly that they'll have to take the fruit or vegetable," she said. "Mom and Dad will insist that they have to get it."

That's the idea, nutrition experts say. But if you lead a child to watercress, can you make him or her eat?

There were no problems in the Downingtown Area School District, whose schools opened last Monday.

"All the cafeteria workers were trained to push the fruits and vegetables and tell the kids to give it a shot," said Pat McGlone, a district spokeswoman. "It seems to be working well."

With the change, a potential new problem then arises: waste. "There's a huge worry about waste," Moles acknowledged.

Knowing that kids can't necessarily be counted on to down two cups of fruits and vegetables per meal, the USDA will allow a child to select just a half-cup of either to satisfy the reimbursement rules.

Even if the kids eat their half-cups, however, that means there's still potentially going to be extra apples, bananas, and broccoli hanging around the cafeteria, experts say.

In Philadelphia, food will be presented in ways that will allow for leftovers to be served again, thus controlling waste, said Wayne Grasela, vice president of food services at the School District.

Still, Grasela said, the emphasis will be to get the district's schoolchildren to take in as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

"That's the largest difficulty we face," Grasela said. "They have to take a fruit or vegetable, and it's a bigger offering."

The trick, Grasela added, is to make the food as appetizing as possible.

Amy Virus, manager of support services for the district's division of food services, said the plan was to entice with mixed green salads, seasoned broccoli, collard greens, tomatoes, cole slaw, and more.

"Part of them eating these foods is exposure," Virus said.

That's true, noted Doris Smith, president of Local 634 of the school cafeteria employees union.

"Children will respond to items they know about and like," she said. "If the meals include items they like, children will eat every blessed thing. But if they don't like it, they'll stop in a store on the way to school and buy chips."

Grasela knows getting kids to eat vegetables will be a special challenge. "We don't add butter and sodium," as per USDA regulations, he said. "But if we present the food to them a little at a time, we'll get some traction on it."

Galen Tyler, a 43-year-old father of three district students from Philadelphia's Mayfair section, agrees.

"It'll initially be a shock to the kids to have to eat all those fruits and vegetables," Tyler said. "But as a parent, I really think this is a great thing."

A Community College of Philadelphia student who once worked for a community nonprofit, Tyler said his children get free lunch in school.

"Trying to feed your kids healthy meals in the home is expensive," said Tyler, whose wife is an unemployed medical assistant. "But to get a nutritional lunch, it helps. I talk to my kids about it. They're not extremely happy about this, but your kids need energy to pay attention in class."

The district gets its lunches from the Maramount Corp. in Brooklyn, N.Y., which assembles meals from foods it receives from various locations. The district augments the offerings with fresh fruits and vegetables, but it has a limited budget.

"We are forced to live within what the federal government reimburses for us," Grasela said.

The new food costs amount to $3.4 billion during the next five years, USDA figures show.

Overall, the USDA is increasing its reimbursement to school districts an extra 6 cents per meal to help defray the costs of the extra fruits and vegetables and the labor needed to process them.

But such meals will each cost districts a total of 14 cents extra over the next five years, USDA figures show.

To make up the shortfall, districts will have to charge more money for full-priced meals, Moles added. They will also have to offset costs, perhaps by using cheaper napkins or sporks - the popular spoon/fork combination.

Ultimately, the changes constitute a daunting task.

"It's just a lot for schools to take on, especially in districts with huge free and reduced-price lunch populations, like Philadelphia," Moles said. "It's a very hard place to feed kids, and to feed them well.

"But at the end of the day," she said, "the district is making sure that, at least, the children get the food."

Contact Alfred Lubrano

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