By Elizabeth Anna Valla, The Columbus Telegram

COLUMBUS — Angela Beltran, a junior at Columbus High School, had been looking forward to an open campus for lunch since her freshman year.

When this year arrived and Columbus Public Schools took away the privilege that allows juniors to leave the school for lunch she was disappointed.

But Beltran said a new lunch program has helped soften the blow.

“At least we get a variety,” she said. “The best part is getting to choose what I want.”

Gone are the days of walking through the lunch line and getting a spoonful of what everyone else is having. The reality is not every student wants to eat the same thing.

Columbus Public Schools found a happy medium for students through a new food services contract with South Dakota-based Lunchtime Solutions. The goal is to make healthy eating exciting for students.

CHS serves more than 800 meals a day, a number that is up significantly this year, and not just because juniors are required to stay on campus. Dean of Students Jason Schapmann said he’s noticed a lot more kids rushing to the lunch line than in years past.

“Chicken and waffles, spicy chicken salad, Italian cheesy bread, buffalo chicken pizza, tacos, grilled food,” Schapmann said, listing just a few of the lunch options offered on a single day at a cost of $2.70 a tray for students. “Plus, they can come back for free fruits and vegetables every day.”

David Dominguez-Lopez, a senior, said he finds himself eating more each day because he gets to choose what goes on his plate.

The new lunch program seems to be catching on with students, who are excited about the variety.

Students have a choice of four different lunch lines — grilled foods, pizza, homestyle or sub sandwiches.

Junior Alex Uhlig said he no longer has to dread a lunchtime menu item.

“I think this really helps feed the picky people,” said sophomore Katie Anderson.

But Beltran said there is a downside.

“I find there isn’t enough time to go back up to take advantage of the free seconds,” she said.

 “One time I grabbed a peach on the way out, but that was it,” Anderson said in agreement.

This isn’t the first time CHS lunches have included a soup and salad bar buffet, but it is the first year students are allowed to go back for seconds on certain items at no extra charge. And there are more options.

But Beltran said the line takes longer to get through this year with all the extra choices, meaning there’s less time to eat.

Schapmann said that issue should be resolved when the larger high school opens in early 2017 since more lunch lines will be added.

Needing more time to eat is an issue for Blake Petersen. The CHS junior said by the time he gets to the lunchroom after his last class, he barely has time to assemble his tray, sit down and eat, let alone go back for seconds.

 “It’s just so busy, and I’m at the end of the line every day,” said Petersen, whose last class before lunch is across the building from the lunchroom.

Uhlig agreed.

“I’m at the end of the line every day, too, because I’m really far away from the lunchroom,” said Uhlig, who waits for the line to shorten before stepping up to get a tray.

On Tuesday, the last lunch group started lining up shortly after noon, and most of the students made it through the line within 10 minutes.

The longest lines were for popular items such as pizza and grilled food, which includes hamburgers.

Three groups of about 300 students are ushered through the four lines each day. Kim Becker, an area director with Lunchtime Solutions, said about the same number is served at the middle school, and around 300 lunches are provided at each of the district’s five elementary schools.

“The lunch staff has been great and very positive, but the transition has been difficult just because this is new to them,” Becker said, referring to all the new recipes they’ve had to learn in the roughly 90 days she’s been training them.

But Becker said it’s been worth it. She said teaching youths to eat healthy now encourages them to continue the lifestyle when they’re older.

“From what I’ve observed, the kids seem really excited just to have choices,” Becker said.