As Beaufort County students leave the cafeteria each day, school officials want to ensure they have tummies full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
However, some Beaufort County School District administrators and Board of Education members worry that the garbage cans may be becoming more full than the students.
The district -- along with hundreds of districts around the country -- is constantly faced with ever-tightening guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the types and amounts of food it can serve in an effort to improve students' health.
This school year, for example, the district can use little to no salt in its cooking.
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But educators say many students aren't reaping the health benefits because they don't like the food's taste and are throwing much of their meals in the garbage.
To combat the growing waste and ensure students are well-fed, Beaufort County is working to kick up the food's flavor with spices and fresh herbs, according to Sodexo food services director Roberta Peterson.
"We want to make sure we are satisfying the needs and taste buds of students while still meeting the guidelines, which isn't always easy," Peterson said. "So we will continue to be alert to make sure students aren't throwing a lot of their lunch in the trash, because that is a big concern that they aren't getting the food they need for the day."
Food waste has been a growing concern across the country, according to several studies, costing students valuable nutrients and districts lots of money.
A 2013 study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that 40 percent of all lunches served was being wasted. It estimated that the annual costs associated with discarded food tops $1 billion nationwide.
Several Board of Education members have said Beaufort County is not exempt from the problem.
Board member Laura Bush of Bluffton said she sees countless trays of food tossed in the garbage when she visits schools. Peterson said she could not give an exact amount of the food wasted and the cost to the district each year, but it's much more than she'd like.
Bush said she has frequently asked the district what can be done to ensure more students eat -- and the district hopes it has an answer.
Instead of salt, the school kitchens are now cooking with an array of other spices and herbs, said Michael B. Rivers, the cafeteria manager at Red Cedar Elementary School in Bluffton.
For example, cooks are now using Mrs. Dash seasonings, cumin and garlic powder, among other spices. Fresh green peppers, onions, parsley and cilantro are more common, too, Peterson said.
Several chefs came in over the summer to train the cooks on how to use the spices and different recipes to try.
"The key thing we've learned is to cook the food in advance as much as possible in the morning so that the spices have time to settle and infuse and build flavor," she said.
Although the district hopes the recipe adjustments will mean less waste, it will cost more to purchase the spices and comply with the new guidelines, Peterson said.
How much more is not yet clear.
Overall, Rivers said he thinks the students like the food.
"I can put a little love into the food now with the spices," Rivers added. "I think the kids are really enjoying the new flavors."
Several third-graders at Red Cedar said Rivers is right.
Lucas Gonzalez said the food is still sometimes a bit bland, but is usually more flavorful than last year.
"Some of our friends still throw out their food sometimes because they don't like it," he said, "but not as much any more, and I think it is really good."
Peterson said the district has a student committee that will meet once a month to talk about the food and what dishes it likes and doesn't like, as well as ways to improve the less popular items. Its first meeting will be in September.
"We are working to prepare things kids like while staying within the guidelines, and that will take some fine-tuning," Peterson said. "But our biggest goal is to not have students leave the cafeteria hungry, so they can have a good nutritious meal."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.