Wiscasset Primary School nutrition team member Terri Meehan faces a daily challenge that will sound familiar to any parent: how to serve kids healthy, nutritious meals that they will actually like and eat.

Her most recent struggle? Beans.

“Today, students surprised me. We served them bean dip. They didn’t instantly like it. I had to do a lot of going around to the tables being silly and asking the kids to try some. Once I get that one child to like it, others seem to follow. One girl was crying because she couldn’t have more!” said Meehan. If that was not enough, like other school nutrition directors, Meehan also has to conform to strict new federal guidelines that mandate what can and cannot be served in school cafeterias.

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2012 limits calories and salt, adds more whole grains and requires daily servings of fruits and vegetables and is the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years. Susan Boivin, Food Service director of the Camden/Rockport schools, said it can be hard to keep up with new guidelines. “These guidelines affect training, revenue strategy and create more paperwork. It becomes even harder to remain a presence in the cafeteria.”

Through a collaborative effort, the Let’s Go! program (a healthy eating and active living initiative) in Knox and Lincoln counties established a work group for local food service directors to help face that daily challenge of cooking healthy food that meets the approval of both the federal government and kids.

Grant funding from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care has allowed workgroup members to purchase new equipment like an outdoor grill and smoothie machine as well as send staff to trainings to improve their food preparation skills.

Menu items like kale chips, homemade whole wheat pizza and carrot fries are replacing old staples like mystery meat and French fries. Linette Crockett of School Union 69 has noticed a change in her schools since receiving the grant, “I have been able to make purchases that have increased my participation numbers. I can make more eye-appealing, flavorful foods and make more from scratch.”

While not all kids enjoy switching white bread for whole grains or French fries for carrot sticks, food service directors are hopeful the changes in school nutrition are for the better.

For Meehan, just exposing kids to new healthier options is enough, “I know my success with the bean dip was small, but it’s the little things that I feel add up.”

For more information, contact Let’s Go! Knox County Coordinator Adrienne Gallant at 596-8951 or agallant@penbayhealthcare.org. or Let’s Go! Lincoln County coordinator Ellen Baker at 563-4834 or ellen.baker@lchcare.org.