SEBRING - The school lunch line will be a bit peppier for students this school year, with pepperoni and cheese pizza offered more frequently on the menu after a sharp cut back last year due to stricter nutritional standards.
Another favorite, cheeseburgers, has made a comeback on the menu with the loosening of the nutrition requirements.
Highlands School District Food Service Director Martha Brown said pizza will be offered more frequently due to an easing of the federal nutritional caps on meats and grains.
"Based on that decision, we will be able to put some of the old favorites back on the menu a little more frequently," she said.
Pizza was on the menu every day at the high schools two years ago, but last year it was available only one day.
This year it will be on the menu three days a week.
Last year, Fridays were the only pizza day at the middle schools, but this year it will available twice a week, she said. This year pizza will be offered every Friday at the elementary schools, where it was offered only every other Friday last year.
According to nutrition requirements, the school lunch pizza is made with a "whole grain rich crust," which is made from 51 percent whole grains.
"We have a little bit of leeway on the meat and grain standard," Brown said. "We use mainly low-fat mozzarella cheese and usually a turkey pepperoni to keep our calories and fat in line.
"I can't pile it full of bacon and ham and sausage and all the other things that you might sometimes order at home. But there are ways we can still give the kids what they want and have items that fit the nutrition requirements."
The serving size is the same at all grade levels - a one-tenth slice from a 16-inch pizza pie, which is 330 calories for the pepperoni slice and 319 for the cheese slice.
All of the grain items in the breakfast and lunch meals will be 51 percent whole grain this school year, Brown noted.
Students also missed having cheeseburgers, which are more popular than hamburgers, she said.
Adding the slice of cheese to the 2-ounce patty of meat would have violated the stricter nutritional standards, but the cheeseburger returned to the menu during the last part of the 2012-13 school year, Brown said.
"Now I can add the 1/2 ounce of cheese back to it without violating the federal standards," Brown said. The cheeseburger is made with a whole grain bun, lower fat meat and a low fat/low sodium cheese.
Chicken nuggets and chicken tenders will also be made with a whole grain breading.
"So we are meeting the standards and still providing items that the kids were requesting," she said.
Last year was the first year students were required to take a fruit or vegetables with their lunch.
"It got easier as the year went on," she said. "They seem to be accepting the items. We are going to try to switch up some of the items that we are offering to make sure that we are giving them a good amount of variety."
The price of school lunches will increase 10 cents to $2.35 at the elementary level and $2.65 for middle and high school lunches. For those who qualify, the reduced priced meal will remain at 40 cents and the free meal is still available.
The increase is mandated by the paid meal equity calculation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program.
"Each year we have to redetermine, based on the previous year's sales, what our proportional costs are and that drives where our paid meal price has to be set," Brown said.
Due to the same requirement, there was a 10 cent increase last year, she noted.
The free "breakfast in the classroom" meals will continue this year at all the district's elementary schools.