TOWNSHEND -- When students at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School reach for pizza at lunchtime, they're grabbing a slice with a thinner crust and no pepperoni.
The chocolate milk is fat-free. And the macaroni and cheese may come with a bit of squash mixed in.
It's all part of sweeping changes made to every school's menu under new federal nutrition guidelines. And while it's not always popular in the lunch line, those who deliver meals are bending over backwards to ensure that students are loading their trays with the right foods.
"We've had to rewrite our recipes and redo our menus," said Scott Choiniere of The Abbey Group, an Enosburg Falls-based company that handles food service at schools throughout Vermont including nine in Windham County.
One of those schools is Leland & Gray. On Tuesday afternoon, a handful of staff members talked with Choiniere and Jill Smith, the school's cafeteria manager, about how the changes are going so far.
Smith admitted that it's not always easy. Cafeteria workers take the brunt of students' displeasure.
"They don't want some of the things we offer," she said.
But there's not much flexibility. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says new guidelines -- the result of a 2010 law -- are designed to "combat child hunger and obesity and improve the health and nutrition of the nation's children."
The standards reduce saturated fat, trans fats and sodium while
While new breakfast requirements will be phased in, the lunch rules apply now. Choiniere said The Abbey Group has been working since January 2011 to adapt.
"I think we've got a lot of new menu items that kids are liking," he said. "(Student) participation levels started off slow. But they are rebounding."
Coming up with the correct combination of lunches to comply with mandates is no small matter. Weekly vegetable requirements now are broken down into several categories -- dark green (half cup), red/orange (1.25 cups), legumes (half cup), starchy (half cup) and "other" (.75 cups).
There is an additional requirement for another 1.5 cups of vegetables to meet the federal standards for the week.
Luckily, Leland & Gray staffers don't have to keep track of all that.
The Abbey Group "has made is easy for us in the cafeteria. They do all the menu planning for us," Smith said. "It tells us exactly the serving size we can offer the kids."
However, those same staff members also must stop students who haven't chosen the required fruit or vegetable. An easy way to make sure students walk away with the correct nutritional combination, Choiniere said, is to stash a basket of fruit at the register.
There also have been large-scale changes in the foods available at lunch. Gone are margarine and pepperoni due to fat content, Choiniere said. White milk can be no more than 1-percent fat, while chocolate milk must be fat-free.
Leland & Gray's cafeteria now sports an all-you-can-eat veggie bar. And pizza crusts are thinner with more whole grains baked in.
Pizza is a popular item that's available every day at Leland & Gray. But that requires a complex calculation: Meal planners have to assume a worst-case scenario in which a pupil will consume pizza daily, then ensure that student still is meeting federal nutrition rules.
"If it's being offered every day, and the students have access to it, we have to multiply by five to make sure we're not going over (standards) for the week," Choiniere said.
Smith said some meals have to be a little more creative. Staff mix beans into tacos, for example, and they recently served macaroni and cheese with squash.
"They actually really liked it," she said.
More changes may be in the works at Leland & Gray. Principal Dorinne Dorfman sat in on Tuesday's meeting and pressed for a shift away from commercially processed foods that contain additives and preservatives.
Dorfman was displeased to learn that The Abbey Group is, for the time being, using pre-made pizza dough.
"I'm not happy with that," Dorfman said. "When's that going to stop?"
She also said students should not be served canned beans, and she inquired about the possibility of bread baked in-house.
"Homemade bread -- you're going to have a lot of smiles on these kids faces," she said.
Choiniere said the key is to "stick to the items that kids want." But he also pledged to look into the suggestions he heard Tuesday.
"I think it just takes everybody working together," he said.