FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., Feb. 17, 2012--Dozens of tiny faces lined up in anticipation, grabbing utensils and surveying the options for the day.

It's lunch time at Fort Campbell's Marshall Elementary, which also means "go time" for Cafeteria Manager Barbara McConnell. On the menu for the Friday meal is kid-friendly hamburger, hotdogs and French fries, along with ample servings of fruit and salad.

With new federal guidelines recently released promoting more healthy options in school cafeterias, along with clearer recommendations for portion sizes, Fort Campbell Schools Food Service Director Jarrett Rogers stood observing the Marshall Elementary kitchen staff from prep to service during both breakfast and lunch Friday. The oversight, which is being completed at all nine on-post school cafeterias, is an effort to monitor and reward cafeteria workers for their efforts. Rogers plans to hold evaluations at each of the schools during the month of February, and select an overall outstanding cafeteria to be announced in March.

The competition, which takes into account sanitation, preparation and paperwork, is a first for Fort Campbell's schools.

"We're making sure that the meal is within standards, federal and state standards, as far as nutrition and all those types of things," Rogers explained.

At Marshall Elementary, McConnell offered a behind-the-scenes look to the sometimes tricky process of helping children eat healthy. Serving about 400 lunches per day and about half as many breakfasts, the real work begins at 6:30 a.m. each day.

The meals differ depending on the day of the week at each school, with breakfast options including cereal and fresh fruit or a hot meal option for breakfast, and lunches ranging from Italian, to Mexican to sandwiches or pizza depending on the day. The salad bar is always a popular addition for these tiny tummies.

"They like it, and I know the more choices the kids have, the better it's been," McConnell said. "I noticed with the salad bar … they're trying beets, they're eating the bacon bits."

By switching up the vegetable and fruit options, such as apples and carrots one day followed by oranges and tomatoes the next, the children are challenged to try many different foods.

"Some kids will come through and just get three slices of tomatoes," McConnell said. "Yesterday, I had a kid with grilled cheese getting diced tomatoes."

With federal guidelines becoming much more particular in recent years, Fort Campbell Schools make sure each child has a balanced meal upon checkout. A meat, fresh fruit, vegetable and low fat milk are the required options at the elementary school level. Changing the selection from day to day makes nutritional meals easier to digest for children.

"We had spring mix salad today, so that will be gone because it's different," McConnell said. "Instead of just iceberg lettuce, I buy spinach and mix it in … Sometimes they don't like onions so much, so you can always puree it and put it in a sauce. There are little tricks to it."

The idea is get children eating healthy for life, instead of encouraging the intake of easy sweets and fast food. While Rogers said most children can eat sweet rolls every day, "that's not always the best thing to do."

"We try to go with the colored vegetables a lot," Rogers said. "You want your greener greens. You want your really bright yellows and oranges. That's kind of in keeping with the new initiatives that the federal government has put out."

As Rogers travels to other on post schools in the coming weeks, he continues to look for quality and nutritional standards. One of the most important aspects for this competition created by Rogers, who retired from the Army in November 2011, is the experience each child has in their school lunchroom.

"We want to make sure that the children feel comfortable coming through the line -- that they feel the love," he said. "I grew up in a very small town in Tennessee, and I knew all of the cafeteria folks … I could feel that someone cared about what they were doing for me, and that's what I want them to do for the children."

Rogers plans to continue the competition every other month until the end of the school year as a way to build pride and promote teamwork throughout the school environment and make each cafeteria staff work hard toward a specific goal.

"I think it helps to build a good organization," he added.

While the schoolchildren's tastes are often much different than the Soldiers Rogers served during his 23 years of Army food service, he's up for the challenge.

"The Soldier may take what you give them, but the kid, he isn't getting it," Rogers said. "He's going to push it back. So you just got to keep trying.

"I want [parents] to know that we have their children's care -- that's the first thought in our mind," he said. "We want to do the right thing every day."

Page last updated Fri February 17th, 2012 at 00:00