Increased servings of vegetables are at the heart of the new guidelines -- with emphasis on what color they are.
Judy Lubben, Le Mars Community School's food service director, explained the concept.
"They never separated the vegetables before, and now there are five groups," she said.
The five groups are "dark green vegetables," "red and orange vegetables," "beans and peas," "starchy vegetables" and "other vegetables."
Starting next year, the new rule will require high school students be offered one-half cup of the dark green vegetables per week, including foods like spinach, broccoli and romaine lettuce, Lubben said.
Schools must also offer 1 1/4 cup of red and orange vegetables weekly, including carrots, squash, tomatoes, red peppers and sweet potatoes.
The weekly menu must also include one-half cup of beans and peas, one-half cup of starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes, and three-fourths cup of other vegetables including asparagus, cauliflower, green beans, onions and zucchini.
"They're really trying to push the vegetables next year," said Gehlen Catholic School's cafeteria manager, Robin Ellensohn. "I think kids have got the fruits down. Now they're starting to work on vegetables."
On the other hand, with the new requirements, schools will have to cut back on the amount of starchy vegetables they're used to serving, like corn and potatoes, Ellensohn said.
"That will take some getting used to for the kids," she said.
Ellensohn said adding more dark green veggies and beans and peas will be the focus for Gehlen.
Right now, canned corn, green beans and peas are staples, Ellensohn said.
However, this year Gehlen started offering a salad bar every day for all students, from transitional kindergarten (TK) to seniors in high school. That salad bar includes a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits, Ellensohn said.
"It's gone over wonderful," she said. "Even TKers and kindergarteners will go through the salad bar and eat a big chef salad. Five years ago you would have never seen children eat salad. It really has helped introducing vegetables to children so young."
Lubben said LCS' menus already include some dark green vegetables -- mainly broccoli and romaine and spinach.
Including the beans and peas will be the toughest, she said.
"We're going to have to change our recipes," Lubben said.
Lubben has been experimenting with new recipes to incorporate more of the required vegetables for next year.
"Kids don't eat enough vegetables because they're not shown how to eat them," she said. "It takes some creativity."
Beans, for example, could be mixed into salads, salsas, or even a Mexican chicken soup, Lubben said.
"At home I'm experimenting with black bean brownies," she added. "And I'm excited about a Caribbean wrap that includes lettuce and beans."
Most students are pretty adaptable when it comes to meals, she said.
All these vegetables take time to prepare, both Lubben and Ellensohn noted.
That's especially true with serving fresh veggies, Ellensohn said.
"We try to do some fresh, but it's not always cost effective," she said. "To chop vegetables for 400 people is time consuming."
Lubben predicts that with the new requirements for next year, the cafeteria staff will have more prep time than ever.
"I'm hoping we have the time," she said.
If not, it's possible she may need to ask for more staff, she added.
Currently, most LCS elementary students and slightly more than half of LCS' high schoolers eat school lunch.
At Gehlen, there is 90 percent lunch participation.
Lubben noted the new requirements are also encouraging students to add more fruits and veggies on their plate when they go through the lunch line.
Currently students must choose three of five meal options: milk, meats, bread/grains, fruit and vegetables.
A lot of times, that means they skip the fruits and vegetables, Lubben said.
"Now I do about half the amount of vegetables because otherwise we would be wasting it," she said.
But next year students will have to choose four of the five -- meaning they'll have to take a fruit or vegetable, she said.
Still, putting a veggie or fruit on a student's plate doesn't necessarily mean it'll get eaten.
"We can keep serving it to them, but we can't make them eat it," Ellensohn said.
The new federal school lunch rules, released in January as part of a national initiative to curb child obesity, extend beyond vegetables.
Both Lubben and Ellensohn will be attending multiple training sessions about how to implement the new requirements.
One focus is shifting the grains, breads and pastas toward whole grains.
Starting next year, at least half the grain foods served at the schools must be whole grains. By 2014, all must be whole grains.
Almost everything at Gehlen is already whole grain, Ellensohn said.
"We only have a couple things left that aren't," she said. "Our buns are whole grain; the spaghetti is whole wheat; we use brown rice."
At first students weren't so sure about the whole wheat noodles, which are browner and a little heavier in texture, but they got used to it, Ellensohn said.
LCS has also already been pushing whole grains, Lubben said.
"Right now at least half our meals are whole grain already, whole grain buns, pasta," she said. "I'm not worried about that. The kids are used to it."
Students will likely see more tortilla shells and rice and less buns, Lubben noted.
"Especially at the younger grades, because they don't need the carbs," she said. "And they probably won't understand at first because everything they've ever seen is served on a bun."
Lubben noted the new requirements for the coming years will decrease the size of the protein servings.
Right now, high school students can be served up to 15 ounces of protein a week.
The new requirements would cap that at 12 ounces a week.
Food service companies will have to change most protein servings from 3 ounces to about 2 1/2 ounces, she said.
Lubben also pointed out that protein is being removed from the school breakfasts. Generally cottage cheese and string cheese were the proteins available at LCS during the breakfast time.
"I'm not sure why," she said. "Kids seemed to like the cottage cheese and string cheese, and it was good for them."
The new federal requirements are going to phase in maximum and minimum calorie intakes, based on age, Lubben said.
Average maximum for an elementary student will be about 650 calories per meal, while high schoolers will have a maximum of about 850 calories per meal.
In the future, more requirements will come about reducing sodium, both Lubben and Ellensohn noted.
"They're big on using herbs and spices," Ellensohn said.
The new requirements don't encourage desserts, Lubben said.
And if the school does serve a dessert, it should be fruity, she said.
"Things like apple crisp, banana bread," she said.
Ready or not
Both LCS and Gehlen are part of the National Lunch Program and eligible to offer students free and reduced-price lunches based on income.
According to Iowa Sen. Randy Feenstra, the federal government pays schools .26 cents per meal for students who pay for their lunch, $2.37 for students receiving reduced lunch and $2.77 for students who receive free lunch.
The state of Iowa pays a tiny portion for all meals served to students.
Schools have to meet the school lunch requirements or lose the federal and state reimbursement for the food.
"Every three years the USDA does a major audit on our menus," Ellensohn said.
But the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) also offers resources and contact people to help school meal planners work through requirements.
For menu planners like Ellensohn and Lubben, the new meal requirements will mean a lot more paperwork and time coordinating meals.
Still, the two don't see the changes in an overall negative light.
"We're always moving in the right direction," Lubben said. "It's just that we're not controlling it."
Ellensohn also said she thinks the changes will be a good shift.
However, the some of the changes may be easier to make on paper than in real life, she said.
"Sometimes you just have to think, 'is it cost effective,'" Ellensohn said.
She referenced chopping vegetables.
"You need a lot of employees for that," she said. "It's the time it takes to prepare that's the problem."
As far as increasing nutrition for students, the new requirements are great, Ellensohn said.
"The only thing is, sometimes you need to start at home more, because we can do all this but you can still go home and eat a bag of Doritos and a couple of doughnuts," she said.
If nutritious eating doesn't only happen at school lunch, but also at home, with parents encouraging their children to eat healthier foods, the impact will be bigger, Ellensohn said.
"Then the two can work together," she said. "It's got to start at home."