Visitors to a Northside ISD cafeteria on any given weekday are sure to notice some stereotype-defying offerings: bowls of fresh fruit, vegetables, salads, lean meats, and whole grain rolls.
What they won't find in today's school cafeterias isn't quite as obvious but is just as significant. Don't tell the kids, but school cafeterias - or cafés as they're now called - no longer serve bread made with white flour, high-fat cheese, fried foods, and carbonated beverages.
Increasing the nutritional content and quality of food served to students and staff is an ongoing mission for Northside ISD's Child Nutrition Department, which serves more than 100,000 meals a day at 100 school-based cafeterias.
School cafeterias have changed dramatically in the last 20, even 10 years, even though classic standards and kid-favorites like pizza, enchiladas, corn dogs and hamburgers are still on the menu, said Cynthia Barton, District dietitian.
However, that pizza is made with a whole grain crust and low-fat cheese; the enchiladas also are made with low fat cheese and served with oil-free Spanish rice; the corn dogs are made with turkey; and the hamburger is 86 percent lean ground beef and served on a whole wheat bun.
In addition, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is served every day. Salad dressings are either low-fat or non-fat. And yes, even the few a la carte dessert items that are offered are low-fat.
Despite the many changes, school cafeterias remain a target for criticism by politicians, health care providers, and community groups who say districts should be doing more to help children establish healthy lifestyles. Their concern is legitimate, considering about 30 percent of Texas children are obese or overweight, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.
And between First Lady Michelle Obama's battle against childhood obesity and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro's Healthy Schools initiative, school nutrition has taken center stage both locally and nationally.
"Schools nationwide have made tremendous progress in improving school meals," said Nancy Rice, president of the School Nutrition Association. "A recent School Nutrition Association survey found that cafeterias are offering more whole grains, vegetarian options and fresh produce this year, and that schools are reducing the sodium and added sugar in the foods they serve."
Northside schools are doing their part - and then some - to support healthy habits, Child Nutrition Director Thomas Wherry says. In the last two years alone, the department has spent $1.5 million increasing the quality of food by offering more fresh fruits and salads and foods lower in sodium and fat and higher in fiber.
"If you take this food away from the cafeteria, you would think it was restaurant-quality food," Wherry said. "The foods we buy are good quality, similar to what you would find at H-E-B or better."
Like all public school districts in Texas, Northside's Child Nutrition Department must follow both state and federal guidelines set by the Texas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All entrees must have 23 grams of fat or less, though most entrees have between 10-18 grams of total fat, Barton said. A nutritional analysis of all meals served by Child Nutrition is posted on the department's website.
The USDA is expected to issue new regulations this summer, but they likely won't have much impact on Texas school districts because the Texas Department of Agriculture already has most of the proposed regulations in place. And Northside ISD has even stricter standards than the state, Wherry said.
Before jumping to judgment, critics should keep in mind that running a school cafeteria is a balancing act between providing quality, nutritious meals and providing meals students will eat. There's no point in serving tofu burgers if students won't eat them, Barton said.
"We're going to offer kid-friendly foods made in a healthy fashion," Barton said. "If food ends up in the trash, what have we accomplished?"
Salad bars are another common suggestion to make school cafeteria food healthier. Unfortunately, salad bars present a host of sanitary issues and also slow down the food service line, an important consideration when hundreds of students have just 20 minutes to eat, Wherry said. A variety of salad items are offered, accomplishing the same healthy choices of a salad bar in a more controlled environment.
Child Nutrition's mission goes far beyond "healthy food for healthy kids." Northside NIC, the loveable Child Nutrition mascot, regularly visits elementary schools across the district to help teach children about good nutrition, appropriate portion sizes, and exercise. NIC (Nutrition Instructional Chimp) has proved so popular that Child Nutrition is planning to purchase a second mascot suit so that NIC can be in two places at once.
NIC was introduced about four years ago, at the same time Child Nutrition overhauled its menus and cafeteria signage. All school cafeterias now are called "N-Zone" Cafés, to indicate school cafeterias are becoming more and more like a restaurant and less like, well, a school cafeteria.
The marketing efforts are working. District-wide, "business" is up by more than 5 percent for both breakfast and lunch. The department is completely self-sufficient and receives no funding from the District.
Celeste Crabtree, the cafeteria manager at Jay High School, said when she moved to Jay five years ago, the cafeteria served 900 to 1,000 lunches a day. This year, they're serving 1,500 to 1,800 lunches over three lunch periods daily. Popular menu items are the teriyaki chicken strips, the chicken tenders, and the cheese enchiladas, she said.
"When I came here the food was totally different," she said. "I was skeptical when they changed the breakfast menu, but now the kids have so many more choices."
Jay students said they had no idea they were eating low-fat and whole grain foods. They said they like the convenience and the variety of menu choices.
"They always have something to eat here," said Carlton Hemphill, a freshman at Jay's Science and Engineering Academy, who said he eats in the school cafeteria every day. "It's always good."