For years, Brenda Kovacs has been head cafeteria worker for Quaker Valley Middle School, but her job isn't the same as it was a few months ago.
As usual, she arrives at 8 a.m. to prepare meals for 150 youngsters. But these days, she has even more to do before the first lunch at 10:07 a.m.
On a recent "Taco Tuesday," she chopped fresh romaine lettuce, stirred two stainless steel pots of brown rice and sliced baked potatoes. An hour later, she served corn with one hand and gestured to a selection of fresh fruit with the other.
"Try that salsa! And I want to see a fruit," Ms. Kovacs said to the seventh- and eighth-graders filling their trays.
• Students must choose at least one serving of fruit each day.
• Students must choose at least one serving of vegetables each day. Schools must increase variety of vegetables and offer weekly servings of leafy greens, legumes and red/orange vegetables.
• Flavored milk must be fat-free, and regular milk must be low-fat or fat-free.
• Schools must offer a serving of whole grains at every meal. At least half the grains offered during the week must be whole grain-rich.
• Over a 10-year period, schools must work to reduce sodium content in meals.
This school year, following new federal school lunch regulations that took effect in July, Ms. Kovacs, her team and others in school districts around the country are taking on simultaneous roles of chefs, salespeople and amateur food designers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the new school lunch regulations in January. Food service directors at schools participating in the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program spent much of the summer crafting menus to accommodate the changes.
That includes planning meals that eliminate trans fat, reduce sodium content and offer more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Students now must take a fruit and a vegetable at lunch.
There are more specific rules, too. Schools must offer nine to 12 whole grain options for high school students. Meals must fall within a specified 100-calorie range -- 750 to 850 calories for high schoolers, for example.
The Quaker Valley School District, which serves 11 towns along the Ohio River in the northern suburbs, already had made some of these changes, including offering an expanded selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Other districts had gradually introduced changes as well. At least one -- Plum School District -- found that some students didn't embrace what they saw this year as smaller meal portions and poor quality and the new requirement to take a fruit. Those students took to Twitter earlier this month and made #BrownBagginIt a trending topic in the Pittsburgh area. Plum food service director Maryann Lazzaro said school lunch sales were down those few days but have returned to normal.
Not all students will be receptive to the changes, of course, but food service directors said they're trying to serve them as customers, not just consumers. So now food service workers have to think seriously about display.
Before school started, Quaker Valley food service director Jennifer Reiser called all of her cafeteria workers together for a four-hour PowerPoint presentation called "Back To School Dining Boot Camp 2012."
She covered just about everything -- including why the way in which they display Doritos matters.
"Make it look like they are eating in their favorite cafe!" slide No. 75 exclaims in a red font, with a photo of baked chips neatly arranged on a shelf.
Sure enough, it looks like a selection you would find in a Subway shop.
Martin Lorenzo, a nutritionist and food service director at Gateway School District, used terms such as "customer service" and "marketing" to describe a similar approach.
"The students are our customers, as well as the teachers, as well as Mom and Dad," he said.
In Quaker Valley, a quarter of the food is made from scratch -- not uncommon in similar districts in the region. Time and budget constraints make using fresh ingredients 100 percent of the time impossible.
Seventh- and eighth-graders in Quaker Valley are temporarily attending school in the former Anthony Wayne Elementary in Ambridge while their school is renovated.
Ms. Reiser, the food service director, stopped by on "Taco Tuesday" and, without a recipe, showed her staff that sometimes it takes only a little extra time to make some foods from scratch.
"I'm just kind of winging it, honestly," she said, stirring the mix with gloved hands.
At first, her salsa of black beans, fresh tomatoes, corn, seasoning and lime was not a big hit. But by the end of the day, only a few cups were left.
Either way, it beats the canned alternative.
"Open the can, throw it in the container, then out it went" to be served, said Wendee Ritchey, describing what the Quaker Valley cafeteria staff used to -- and sometimes still -- do.
Ms. Ritchey runs the cash register and helps with various tasks in the kitchen. She also refills the condiments, a monotonous task made easier when the district purchased several big pump containers this year.
As the district has taken a different approach to food service, it has meant more preparation all around.
"Before that, lunch was easy," she said.
Samantha Hiller is the self-described "fruit chick."
She sliced up kiwi and strawberries and arranged them neatly with grapes in black plastic containers. Many schools are using the black containers since the new regulations took effect because the fruit looks more vibrant against the dark background and the container holds one portion of fruit.
"We need another color," Ms. Hiller said, surveying her creation.
"We started making them fancy just this week," Ms. Ritchey noted.
Although no rule dictates how cafeteria workers should display food, the requirement that students select a fruit option is sparking conversations about what will best appeal to them. Ms. Kovacs suggested sliced pineapples with a blueberry in the center to resemble a flower.
When it comes to getting kids to eat healthy food, appearance is important, but so is how you talk to them. Ms. Hiller said she's probably the least threatening in her team -- she's the lunch lady with a lot of sass who asks about sports and doesn't assign homework. She also is the bus driver for many of the students.
"I get them in all aspects of the day," she said.
Just before students arrived in the cafeteria, all four women moved in and out of the kitchen, sliding the ground beef tray onto a reservoir of hot water in the lunch line and arranging the cups of salsa and fresh fruit.
Ms. Reiser and Ms. Ritchey slid small cups under the fruit trays to prop them up.
The women agree that's the biggest change: being conscious of how they're presenting the food.
Ms. Kovacs said she's also keen to how much the students are eating.
For example, on another day, she browned English muffins and egg patties -- but under the new regulations, she no longer can add bacon or sausage patties to the sandwiches because it would include excess protein.
Kids are still getting used to the changes.
"Do the carrots count as a vegetable?" asked one seventh-grader with a pile of carrots drizzled in honey.
One boy tried to sneak through the line, selecting only hash browns for his entire lunch.
"I want to see some other stuff on that plate!" Ms. Kovacs told him.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM