KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Almost everything on school lunch menus is government commodity. But that doesn't mean it has to taste bad.
School food service workers consider it a personal challenge to prepare and serve the food in a way that ensures children get needed nutrition and -- here's the kicker -- like the food.
That means involving students in selecting what is served for breakfast and lunch at school. And that's exactly what's happening in districts such as Raytown and Blue Springs.
In Raytown, three times a year elementary students meet with Nancy Coughenour, the district's director of food service. They talk about eating right and what they like and don't like.
Students at Southwood Elementary held their first Nutrition Council meeting of the year this month.
"What does a food service director do?" Coughenour asked the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.
"Pick the food," one of the nine council members blurted. Coughenour patted her on the head, an acknowledgment for the correct answer.
"Who would my boss be?" Coughenour asked the group.
"Us," another student yelled. Her response brought laughter from fellow council members and a few teachers.
"You're right," Coughenour said. "If I put strange food out, you wouldn't eat it. You represent everyone at Southwood."
She explained that she would base her food selection on information from council members about how it tastes and what they would like.
Then the fun began.
Students got to taste-test cereals for the breakfast program.
Small plastic cups, two filled with multicolored Os and two with flakes, were placed in front of each taster.
After tasting the cereal, students decided that some Os and some flakes were sweeter and crunchier than others.
They preferred the sweeter cereal but said that because both tasted good, they would not have trouble eating the ones with less sugar.
The taste testing goes hand in hand with a national program called Team Nutrition that was started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote healthy eating. The federal agency stresses lowering fat and sodium intake to combat childhood obesity.
This is the first effort of its kind since the National School Lunch Program began in 1946.
Team Nutrition, though, does more than involve students; it trains food service workers to present healthy foods in a way appetizing to children.
And the program has increased federal monitoring of what is being served.
"Most average people don't realize how we do a school lunch and the different qualifications we have to go through to meet USDA guidelines," said Bruce Wallen, director of food service for Blue Springs schools.
"This year the hot button is fat, because of the concerns about childhood obesity," Wallen said.
The goal is to reach a weekly balance on the amount of fat served to students.
Because new software measures fat in everything from a dollop of ketchup to a handful of fried potatoes, Wallen said it is easier now to measure the fat content and serve a wider variety of foods.
Fat content can be higher some days than others, as long as by the end of the week the Food and Drug Administration's recommendation is met.
In Blue Springs, like in Raytown, students are an important part of the process in getting the right foods served. Student food councils help throughout the district, from elementary through high school, Wallen said.
"We get a lot of feedback from kids," he said. "If we don't sell a case of a certain food a week, we don't use it any more."