In the past, school lunches meant going through the long line and accepting a plate of whatever the meal of the day happened to be.
In recent years, students have been offered some choices, but with the implementation of Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, students are being offered more food and healthier options than ever before.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizes funding to schools for nutritional meal programs and increases access to healthy food for low-income children.
"This is the biggest change in school menus in a decade," said Janie White, director of the food service program for Monett R-1 School District. "Menus are now based on five components: a meat or meat alternative, grains, dairy, vegetables and fruit.
"The main complaint is that there are no desserts," White continued. "There is absolutely no wiggle-room in the program for desserts. Opaa! has nutritionists that has worked on these menus since the initiative was handed down, and so far, they haven't been able to get a dessert in even one time a month."
Opaa! is the food service management company that provides meals to many area school districts.
"We can't be out-of-balance on the menus," White said. "If we are, the school district can be fined for non-compliance."
That would result in the district having to refund the six cents per meal in additional funding it receives for the federal government program.
Presently, the USHealthier School Challenge has implemented guidelines to incorporate more varieties of fruit, dark greens and orange vegetables, dry beans or peas, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free milk.
Students in kindergarten through eighth grades receive the same amount of nutritional components per tray. Students in ninth through 12th grades receive the same number of components, but in larger portions.
Students are allowed to choose the fruits and vegetables they prefer, along with a choice of entrées or a salad bar.
"The one thing they have started doing is governing the amount of condiments students can have, unless they decide to purchase extra condiments a la carte at full price," White said. "We used to have a big container with a pump dispenser so students could have as much or as little as they wanted. That is no longer allowed."
A typical day's menu includes a variety of options for students and staffers alike.
A sample breakfast choice is a fruit and yogurt parfait, General Mills cereal or oatmeal, along with a fruit streusel muffin and chilled fruit juice. Lunch options include a choice of entrees such as a chicken patty or baked ham, along with mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, fresh grapes, chilled fruit and a hot roll.
"It's a lot of food," White said, "but we're seeing a lot less waste."
Surprisingly, younger students seem to enjoy the salad bar option.
"We have fifth and sixth grade students who prefer the salad bar over the entrée options," White said. "There again, they have meat, cheese, salad, fruit and vegetables. They pick and choose what they like and may take as much as they like. Students like having choices."
That's not to say a kindergarten student can opt for five servings of strawberries at a meal.
"No, they have a choice of fruits and vegetables," White said, "and I am amazed at the amount of fruit we are going through."
Student athletes who burn more calories than the average computer enthusiast also have the option to buy other food items from the a la carte menu at full price.
If they want an extra meal or hamburger, they can have it, but it's not part of the federally reimbursed meal program," White said. "The whole point is to fight childhood obesity and the related medical issues."
Additional changes will be coming to the meal program next year.
"Next school year, breakfast choices will be regulated," White said. "The following year, a la carte options will be affected."
Those changes will include a reduction in sodium that will be phased-in over a 10-year period.
"Schools will be audited every three years to ensure compliance," White said. "Those out of compliance can face some pretty heavy fines."