Before devouring homemade gingerbread cookies and gnawing on candy canes over winter break, students in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district were likely noticing changes in their campus cafeterias.

New chicken cutlets replaced ground chicken patties on sandwiches. Different chicken tenders were served. There was even a fajita day with plates that featured seasoned chicken, red and green bell peppers, fresh onions and whole-grain flour tortillas.

Meanwhile, a new hummus box was introduced as a vegetarian option and customized yogurt parfaits were available for breakfast.

The menu changes follow the district’s hiring earlier this year of a new food and nutrition services director, Liz Powell, who is asked to balance a multitude of state and federal regulations, as well as funding restrictions, while also taking children’s tastes and parents’ concerns into consideration.

Powell’s actions aim to address at least some of the issues raised by parent activists who have convened informally and with district officials with the hope of improving the quality and health of food offerings at schools.

But the district’s central focus, spokeswoman Gail Pinsker said, is serving the students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. Close to 27-percent of students in the district qualify for discounted meals.

“The food program needs to be self-sustaining, so while many parents and staff would like to see us move toward organic, more fresh ingredients, reduce salt and sugar, more whole grains, and less processed foods, we also have to consider the financial implications and what students will actually eat, while not raising pricing,” Pinsker said. “There is always room for improvement.”

The recent improvements have been spearheaded by Powell, who studied nutrition at Cal Poly Pomona. She previously served for 11 years in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, where she implemented a rotating menu system with a focus on healthy fare for more than 15,000 students at 20 elementary and middle schools.

Powell’s efforts have been supplemented by the work of several consultants, who were hired by the district to work with students and educate their families about obesity, diet and other lifestyle issues. Their contracts were approved by the school board earlier this year.

“Under Liz’s leadership since September, we are enhancing and improving our program and the immediate changes are very exciting,” Pinsker said. “We are very excited about these changes and so are many parents who have been encouraging us to look toward some additional healthy food options.”

Powell said she has tried to learn about the district’s food operations and make small changes without disrupting meal services. She got rid of sugary cereals, swapped out the condiment packets for ones that don’t have high-fructose corn syrup and replaced the spork kit with dispensers for forks, spoons and napkins.

From January through May, salad bars will be in use on a daily basis at all elementary schools. Powell is trying to increase the variety of fruits and vegetables available to students beyond the entree items at breakfast and lunch.

New salads and smoothies are in the works for students at the secondary level. The hummus boxes and the new chicken items will also be offered to them.

Powell said she meets monthly with site managers and receives feedback from them on student responses to the cafeteria food.

“Our plan is to keep these new items on the menu to see how the children like them,” she said.

jeff@www.smdp.com