Dishes such as quinoa-edamame salad and sushi are set to replace old standbys like corn dogs and "Bosco Sticks" (cheese wrapped in dough).
Officials hope the healthier food will boost participation in the lunch program, now used by about one in five Palo Alto students.
"The vegetarian options are excellent," said Priya Abani-Doke, mother of a second-grader and a kindergartner at Hoover Elementary School. She was among 300 parents and students who sampled prospective menu items Friday, Aug. 9, at a "tasting day" at JLS Middle School.
"I never considered buying a school lunch before — I always packed the lunch — but now we'll try it."
The lunch initiative is a result of persistent lobbying by parents and a cautious, poll-tested approach by the Palo Alto school district, whose last venture into healthier lunches in 2005 led to budget deficits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Back then, parents also had lobbied for fresher choices. The district's food-service contractor at that time, Chartwells, blamed failure of the effort on the high cost of paying the district's 20-plus food-service staff members, which it said consumed 76 cents out of every dollar in program revenue.
Since then, the program deficit has been whittled down to break-even, and a new crop of parents is seeking healthier menus.
"The landscape and even the mindset of parents on what they want their kids to eat has changed," said Rebecca Scholl, mother of four Palo Alto students who has led the drive for reform.
Scholl was raised in France, where students traditionally go home for lunch or sit down to a complete noon meal prepared by school cooks. For the past two years she's spearheaded an October "Tasting Week" in Palo Alto schools, bringing in top chefs for cooking and tasting demonstrations.
"In an ideal world we'd have a real lunchtime — not just 40 minutes — and we'd have kids sitting down to eat, not standing," said Scholl, who believes "there's a strong tie between food and mental health."
She and others have lobbied for at least two years for fresher, healthier lunch options.
Burned before, the district has proceeded cautiously, mindful that new selections must retain or boost participation in the lunch program, not drive students away.
At Friday's JLS tasting day, kids were asked to vote on the upcoming fall selections — which included turkey burgers, black bean/sweet potato salad, vegetable lasagna and chicken and vegetable potstickers — after sampling them.
"We can respond to their preferences in our September menu," said Alva Spence, who was tallying the votes. Spence, an employee of the food-service management company Sodexo, manages Palo Alto's lunch program.
"I've already had one girl come up and ask, 'Where are the Bosco Sticks?'" Spence said. "The foods that were more processed are coming out of the menu, but maybe we'll bring them back once a month or so."
A May poll of Palo Alto's K-12 parents suggested families would be willing to pay up to 50 cents more per school lunch (from $3.75 to $4.25) — and use the service more often — if more locally produced, organic items were offered.
Parents also expressed preference for an online pre-ordering system, with nearly 60 percent saying they would use online pre-ordering "on a regular basis" if it were available.
As a result, elementary school families will see lunch prices go from $3.75 to $4.25. Prices will remain the same — free or 40 cents — for the 9 percent of district students whose family income qualifies them for the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.
Officials said they're researching online pre-ordering systems and plan to implement one sometime in the fall.
At middle schools and high schools — except for Terman Middle School — lunch prices will go from $4.25 to $4.50, enough to cover new menu items and other recent initiatives such as occasional barbecues at Gunn High School.
Staff members will prepare lunches in school kitchens, which exist in all secondary schools, although the Terman kitchen is under renovation.
At Terman, by request of the school's PTA, the outside vendor Choice Lunch will provide online ordering and a multitude of hot and cold entrees at a price ranging from $5.25 to $6.40, said Cathy Mak, the district's chief business official, who supervises the lunch program.
"We're making a lot of changes this year," Mak said. "Some of it is trial and error, and we'll be making adjustments along the way."
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he'd provide regular reports on the food-service budget to the Board of Education.
Thanking the parent lobbyists and PTA, Skelly said last week: "We've been for six or seven years looking at this from a cost basis, and now we're in a situation, thanks to the cafeteria staff work, where we've increased the amount of customers, so our mind can shift from cost control to enhancing services."