PITTSTON — There was something just a little different about the macaroni and cheese that cafeteria workers heaped onto students’ trays at Pittston Consolidated School.

Underneath a layer of pale yellow cheese sauce, the noodles had a distinctly brown tint. They were made with whole wheat flour, as were the bread rolls students received at the end of the line.

In addition, the chocolate milk, which most of the students chose over nonflavored, was strictly skim, and it’s on offer only two days a week.

These changes are part of Regional School Unit 11’s efforts to comply with new nutrition rules for federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches. Schools across the country must serve more produce and whole grains, while limiting protein and calories.

Fifth-grade students at Pittston said they approve of the changes they’ve noticed, such as the fact that hamburger and chicken patties are grilled rather than fried.

“I think they taste a lot better now,” Hannah Anderson said. “When it was cooked in grease, it didn’t taste right. And it’s real meat; it’s not chicken byproducts.”

Alyssa Price polished off raw broccoli drizzled with ranch dressing, a cup of fruit cocktail and half her serving of macaroni and cheese.

“At home I’ll have Hamburger Helper, and here I’ll have actual meals,” she said. “I like it here.”

Logan Carleton said he prefers the whole-wheat bread at school to the white bread his parents buy to eat at home.

The new standards are the result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and are intended to promote student health and combat childhood obesity. The regulations apply only to federally reimbursable meals, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture will develop further rules for food sold in à la carte lines and vending machines.

Some of the changes include the following:

* Schools must serve at least three-quarters of a cup of vegetables and a half-cup of fruit daily, up from a combined half-cup of produce.

* A variety of vegetables is mandated weekly, including red or orange, dark green, starchy and peas or beans.

* At least half of grains must be “whole grain-rich,” increasing to all grains starting in 2014.

* Trans fats, previously unlimited, must be 0 grams per serving.

* Calorie minimums have been replaced with ranges that in some cases set the maximum lower than the previous minimum. For instance, fourth- and fifth-graders had to be served at least 785 calories at lunch last year, but now their maximum is 650 calories.

The calorie limits have drawn criticism from students around the country, in particular high school athletes who say they need more food to fuel them through afternoon practices.

Cheryl Ellis, food service director for Farmington-based Regional School Unit 9, said she has not received complaints about portion sizes or any other changes. Mt. Blue High School’s salad bar, which includes vegetables, fruit and beans, stays open during the whole lunch period.

“I’ve tried to make everything easily accessible to them, so if they feel like they’re still hungry, they can get as much from the salad bar as they want,” Ellis said.

RSU 9 is meeting the requirement for dark green vegetables with romaine lettuce, spinach and broccoli, and the red and orange vegetables include bell pepper strips and sweet potatoes.

Ellis said she has not noticed any change in the number of students buying lunch at school, but some of the new food is not as popular as the rest.

“Some of it’s good. Some of it they bypass, like the chickpeas and black beans,” Ellis said. “You put them out there, and you’re pretty apt to bring them back in. But we keep offering them because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”

In Gardiner-based RSU 11, one of the five elementary schools has had a salad bar for a few years, and another added one at the start of this year. The other three, including Pittston’s, will offer them as an alternative to the hot entree starting today.

RSU 11 Director of Student Nutrition Services Mike Flynn said the new regulations have presented some challenges, including sharpening his staff’s cooking skills to decrease reliance on processed foods and taking a new approach when planning menus.

“We’ve always been focused on the protein,” he said. “Now we’re thinking about what’s an inclusive meal. Let’s get them the veg and the fruit first.”

Serving more produce is likely to increase costs, so schools can apply to receive an extra 6 cents of reimbursement for each meal they serve.

Some Maine schools already had improved the meals they served and will have an easier time transitioning, said Walter Beesley, child nutrition services specialist for the Maine Department of Education. The 35 schools recognized last year by the USDA in the Healthier Schools Challenge, for example, already may have met some of the new standards.

As a side effect, the rules seem to be benefiting local farmers, Beesley said.

“We’re seeing a lot more products being purchased locally,” Beesley said. “Now that they have to do more fruits and vegetables, they’re looking for other ways to supplement their program.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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