Six-year-old Katie Ryan loves the chicken nuggets served for lunch at Red Cedar Elementary School.
Ryan probably doesn't know that the breading she likes is actually made from whole grains, making the oven-baked nuggets more healthy.
That and other recent changes mean the Beaufort County School District is mostly in line with new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules released last week. Those rules -- the first new requirements from the USDA in more than 15 years -- call for more fruits and vegetables on children's plates, less salt, less fat and more whole grains.
The S.C. Department of Education is reviewing the requirements and will train school district officials in the coming months before the rules take effect in the 2012-13 school year.
Todd A. Bedenbaugh, the department's director of health and nutrition, said the new requirements include:
Donna Hammond, the wellness manager with Sodexo, the school district's food-service company, said the district already is in line with the vegetable, fruit and milk requirements.
All the grains served are already whole grain, she said.
"We're ahead of the game," Hammond said. "We're already doing what they're asking."
Most of the changes the district has made in the last two years were to bring school meals in line with the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, a voluntary initiative promoted by first lady Michelle Obama that gives money to schools for meeting health goals. All district schools except Daufuskie Island School have been challenge winners.
To comply with the new USDA standards, calorie counts will have to come down, and sodium levels likely will, too.
Currently, there are no sodium requirements, but Hammond said the district opts for low-sodium options when offered. She is seeking ways to make those options more appealing -- the children "aren't as crazy about the canned vegetables," Hammond said.
The district also hopes to serve even more fresh fruit and vegetables with farm-to-school initiatives, said Roberta Peterson, the operations manager with Sodexo.
That's good news for Red Cedar Elementary first-grader Madison Jenkins, who didn't like the canned peas she was served Tuesday. More fresh, raw fruits and vegetables top her school-lunch wish list.
"I'd like more broccoli and carrots," Jenkins said. "And more strawberries and tangerines."
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.
- USDA updates school nutrition guidelines; The Washington Post
- School lunches to have more veggies, whole grains; ABC News
- USDA to require healthier meals in schools with updated nutrition standards; NPR
- Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge