AIKEN - Six-year-old Jessica Keel said she wished her school would serve pizza rolls and Doritos for lunch, but the kindergartner at East Aiken Elementary School seemed content Wednesday with the macaroni and cheese and lima beans on her lunch tray.
She was less enthusiastic about the chicken nuggets that came with the meal.
"They don't taste like McDonald's," she said.
Pleasing the finicky tastes of 15,000 children is a tough job for school food service workers. Meeting the dietary standards and food safety mandates set forth by the federal government is another.
The Aiken County school district has earned passing scores in both areas and has been asked to help other school meal programs in the state that didn't make the grade.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture review of Aiken County's food service program found the county's school meals are packed with nutrition and prepared in sanitary surroundings.
And many of the county's nutrition education efforts and food service practices have put it ahead of the curve.
The county's good marks come at a good time. A federal law being reauthorized in January will force school districts throughout the nation to revamp their meal programs to address childhood obesity and food-handling procedures in school cafeterias.
Expanding the fruit and vegetable servings, incorporating more whole wheat items, implementing food safety training for cafeteria staff and increasing annual health inspections are among the requirements.
In Aiken County's cafeterias, most of those initiatives are already in place.
Wheat-fortified starch items like whole wheat hamburger buns and tortilla wraps were introduced almost two years ago, and more are on the way.
"This next year we've ordered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread," said Jo Ann Griffin, the district food service director.
"We're also looking into whole wheat waffles."
A food safety program that points out proper food temperatures, preparation methods and clean-up procedures is almost fully implemented throughout the school district.
"Eighty percent of the food safety program is in place," she said. "We're already doing (things) like taking the food temperatures and calibrating thermometers."
Under the federal reauthorization, school districts must pass two health inspections a year; Aiken County schools have three annual inspections.
Next fall, the district will launch two nutrition programs to teach pupils about fat content and food groups.
The nutritional values of school meals will appear on take-home school lunch menus, and color-coded labels will teach students how to create balanced meals by identifying which food groups each menu item belongs in.
In the last four years, the school district also streamlined its food service process by phasing out tickets to redeem free or reduced meals and replacing them with key pads and voice-activated machines.
In an attempt to make lunches more appealing to discriminating students, several menu items are now being packaged like fast food meals.
The school's Klux Deluxe chicken sandwiches are sold in paper bags that resemble Chik-fil-A's carry-out sacks.
"Anything you can do similar to fast food, it really helps," Mrs. Griffin said.
Reach Krista Zilizi at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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