Natural food entrees are now on the menu at three Scottsdale elementary schools.
The pilot program, which debuted Sept. 15 in the Scottsdale Unified School District, offers new twists on old classics, such as macaroni and cheese and lasagna, at double the cost of the traditional cafeteria menu items.
But school officials say parents don't seem to mind plunking down the extra cash for the freshly prepared, preservative-free $5 natural meals.
In the first two weeks of the school year, the district reported that some 500 natural entrees were ordered by parents for their children.
"We have parents who feel strictly about serving their children food without preservatives. They've become mindful of pesticides and preservatives found in some foods," said Sue Bettenhausen, the Scottsdale district's director of nutrition services.
Bettenhausen, the former director of food services at America West Airlines, said she was approached in April by Kiva PTO co-president Pam Kirby, who said a number of parents were asking for natural, preservative-free offerings on the lunch menu.
The natural options menu, Bettenhausen said, is freshly prepared from scratch on site at Kiva's kitchen, using a bevy of ingredients including all-natural meats, organic bread and triple-washed produce that meet Arizona nutrition standards. Meals, she said, need to be pre-ordered online on the district Web site in order to ensure that there are enough meals prepared on a given day.
Bettenhausen is quick to point out that the $2.25 traditional cafeteria fare also boasts nutritious offerings, but differs in that it is pre-processed and not 100 percent preservative-free.
Kevin Berk, who has three children ages 7 to 11 attending Kiva, said having natural options is a welcome addition.
Prior to this school year, Berk said his children, who eat an organic diet at home, had to brown-bag their lunch.
"It's nice that a public school is taking the time, effort and money on something that's important to parents," he said.
Some parents say they've seen their children become more willing to try new foods after seeing the meals presented on the festive red-and-white cart in the cafeteria.
"My daughter told me she likes the Caesar salad and the whole-wheat lasagna," Kirby said of daughter Madison, a Kiva third-grader, who rarely cared for whole-wheat foods or salads at home.
Bettenhausen said some foods turned out to be instant crowd-pleasers among the finicky grade schoolers.
"Who knew salmon would be a hit?" she said, adding that hummus and edamame in the shells have become popular snack picks.
Kiva parent Justine Hurry said her two young children like the fruit on a stick and hummus and chips from the natural options menu. But she said the overall menu, which is still evolving in this test phase, could use a little fine-tuning.
"My son didn't like broccoli mixed in the mac and cheese," Hurry said, adding that she would like to see traditional favorites added to the natural options menu, such as grilled cheese made with natural cheese on whole-wheat bread or chicken nuggets made from natural, all-white meat.
Bettenhausen said she's receiving calls from other parents in the district eager to get their school involved in the pilot program.
She said she may be able to lower the natural options entree price once the menu choices are decided.
If approved by the district, Bettenhausen said these new natural options may be offered at school cafeterias districtwide by next fall.