You can lead children to wholesome food.

But you can’t make them eat it.

You can, however, make a worthy effort to help them develop more nourishing tastes.

Walter Campbell, the Charleston County School District’s director of nutrition and food services, takes on that challenge anew when students return Wednesday. And it’s a wide-ranging test.

As he told me Thursday: “It’s like having 75 little restaurants open 180 days a year.”

As for the ongoing push for healthier lunchroom fare across the land, he conceded this familiar scene: “It can be a little disheartening to see them take one bite, then throw the rest of the fruit away.”

Yet the Bishop England and College of Charleston alum added that “over time” kids are learning that eating right doesn’t require an unrelenting diet of raw carrots and celery.

He cites orange chicken — “whole muscle,” not a chopped-up, re-formed product — as his most popular entree. The top coming attraction: teriyaki chicken.

About 23,000 kids ate the district’s standard lunches daily last year, with another 7,000 buying its a la carte options. That adds up to nearly three-quarters of enrollment.

Kids who help grow nutritious crops at school can reap newfound appetites for them after the fresh fare’s short trip to the cafeteria. For instance, some Wando High students raise Romaine lettuce.

Campbell on Wando’s agriculture: “We plan on expanding that program.”

At Mitchell Elementary near the Crosstown, Project Greenheart produces school-grown produce of its own.

Campbell: “It’s amazing how engaged those students are.”

Though Wando’s food court still has a Chick-fil-A, Campbell said tightening federal sodium restrictions might “knock it out” next year.

Fire when ready

More from Campbell: The district no longer offers Pop-Tarts or hot dogs. But it does serve hamburgers — all beef with no fillers or additives.

Macaroni’s a favorite with teachers. Campbell: “We’re rolling out a whole-grain mac and cheese this year.”

On the sweet side lie parfait (low-fat yogurt with fruit) and chocolate milk. Strawberry and vanilla-flavored milk have been scrapped (higher sugar content than chocolate).

Attempts to make school lunches — and breakfasts — less fattening are heavily justified by childhood obesity’s alarming rise over the last few decades. Yet that trimming mission is also another reminder that being a kid isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

Long ago at St. Andrews Elementary, the “eat your broccoli!” pitch wasn’t nearly as intense. And our lunch times lasted much longer.

Some of us even engaged in educational food fights. One lasting school-cafeteria lesson:

A properly utilized utensil can propel a small object high and far. Peas possess particularly effective aerodynamic qualities for this purpose.

A brief primer on finding the lunchroom range:

Place fork, prongs up, on table. Place ammunition on handle’s end. Slap prongs down. Adjust aim as needed.

We didn’t just pick up physics basics from these epic artillery battles. We learned the rewards of guile — and perils of unwarranted aggression.

We also could bring “Rifleman” and “Have Gun Will Travel” lunch boxes to school.

Don’t try that these days.

What lurks beneath

OK, so my youth included nauseating lunchroom experiences too. For instance:

One shocking eighth-grade day at St. Andrews Junior High, a good boyhood friend had already slurped down most of his school-served soup. Then, as he raised another spoonful, he (and we) beheld, amid assorted vegetables, this sickening sight: an obviously used Band-Aid.

Happy ending: My pal somehow overcame that adolescent trauma to graduate from the Naval Academy and attain the lofty rank of rear admiral.

Presumably, 21st century sanitary procedures limit such lunchroom risks today.

So if you want better nutrition in local schools, find nourishing hope in this assertion from Campbell: “We’re taking small steps, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

And if you want to sample the district’s smoothies, go to the First Day Festival from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at Liberty Square near the S.C. Aquarium.

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.