The days of mystery-meat sandwiches and few choices are ancient history in Olentangy Local Schools cafeterias, replaced by more sophisticated options ranging from falafel tots to black-bean burgers.
Bethany Lenko, the district's food-service supervisor, said falafel tots -- made from chickpeas -- are just one new menu item that's been added in response to changing student dietary preferences and palates.
Every day, for example, students in the district's elementary schools may choose between a meat or a vegetarian entree, Lenko said. The options could be something as simple as cheese or pepperoni pizza, she said, or something a little more elevated, such as the black-bean option for hamburger days.
"Part of our job is to introduce kids to new foods," Lenko said. "We're hopeful they'll try them."
In addition to guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- Olentangy participates in the National School Lunch Program, administered by the USDA -- Lenko said her office works to keep up with the wants and needs of students and their parents.
She said parents were surveyed two years ago, and the results indicated they wanted more options, specifically vegetarian choices, for their children.
"We don't have to accommodate every dietary preference, but we do make every effort," Lenko said.
These preferences are displayed alongside any restrictions -- food allergies, for example -- at cafeteria registers when students go through the lunch line.
"Vegetarian, plus more ethnic foods and customizable options" are the trends in school food service, Lenko said.
Olentangy cafeterias offer such choices as a deli bar, Mexican bar, mac-and-cheese bar and broth and noodle bar at the high schools and middle schools. She said the upper schools always have had vegetarian options.
Some additional food options being offered in school cafeterias include a breakfast lemon bread, flavored dried cranberries and cocoa cherry bars, which meet USDA Smart Snacks standards.
It's far from an exact science, especially at the elementary school level, Lenko said.
"An item like falafel tots, we'll do a sampling," said Liberty Tree Elementary School food-service manager Ann Ruland. "They got mixed reviews. Vegetarian chicken nuggets, on the other hand ... even nonvegetarian students liked those.
"It's unpredictable at first, but students do eventually change what they ask for in some instances," Ruland said.
Lenko said the district's menus are created with some specifics and some general guidelines, allowing each school's food service manager the ability to tailor aspects of the menu to their particular students.
Lenko said parents can view school menus on the district's website, plus get information on particular options by hovering over menu items. Some items even include photographs.
These functions, Lenko said, can be particularly helpful to parents of elementary schoolers, who may not be attuned to the dietary practices employed at home.
Broader and more-flexible food offerings can lead to less food waste, too, Lenko said.
Waste is something Lenko is addressing not just in the edible aspects of school meals. Also new this year, some schools are testing a new molded-fiber meal tray made of 100% recycled material that is completely compostable.
These only supplement the commonly used plastic trays, Lenko said, but offer an alternative to Styrofoam trays for times when food service is unable to keep all of its plastic trays washed -- for example, at the very end of a meal time or when a school is understaffed.
For years, Lenko said, sustainable trays were much more expensive than foam, but the ones being used at Olentangy this year are only 2 to 3 cents more.
Because food service is a budget area that is self-supporting, Lenko said, she chose to offer the compostable trays as the backup, rather than foam.