Dakota Benedetto, director of LEAF Charter School in Alstead, puts it plainly when it comes to school nutrition.

“It’s so important! Malnourished kids are not engaged kids,” she says. “It’s impossible to learn when you’re hungry, or when you’re constantly on a sugar-high/sugar-crash cycle.”

Benedetto and her team feel it’s essential for kids, especially adolescents who are nearing independence, to learn the importance of healthy food habits. However, anyone who’s ever tried to feed a child — from a picky toddler right on up to a surly teen — knows nutrition can be a complex issue.

“Lots of kids are really unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable, with healthy foods when they first join us at LEAF,” Benedetto says.

She’s not talking about processed “health foods,” such as those touted as diet products. The school’s definition of healthy foods includes things like fresh vegetables, whole grains and real bone broth soups from humanely raised local animals.

“But some kids still want to bring a Pop-Tart and an energy drink for lunch every day,” she says.

THE HEALTHY CHOICE SHIFT

Shifting kids’ thinking around food is challenging, but luckily, it’s also become a highly prioritized conversation over the past several decades.

A big step toward better school nutrition was the Let’s Move! initiative instituted by the Obamas during their tenure in the White House. The multi-faceted program involved upgrading school nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years and school meal funding for the first time in 30.

Along with a strong emphasis on physical activity in schools, these efforts were aimed at combatting childhood obesity, a growing health crisis nationwide.

While moving the goalpost for healthier childhood eating is not a minimal or short-term task, recent laws do seem to be making a difference.

“If we went back 20 years on what we spend on fresh produce and fresh fruit … I bet you we spend twice as much now,” says Tom Walsh, the nutrition director for the Monadnock Regional School District (MRSD). He’s served in his current role for 20 years and has seen a promising change in the way school meals work.

“You used to have chicken, roll, potato, apple,” he recalls, but the district has since done away with single options for fruits and vegetables. Instead, they’ve started offering a buffet of choices.

Based on the guidelines provided by the USDA and overseen at the state level, students must have a fruit and vegetable portion with their meal.

“They have to make that choice on their plate,” Walsh notes. And with that, he sees healthier eating happening every day.

“Kids love fresh fruit; you can’t believe how much fresh fruit we use,” he says.

He feels the same is true in surrounding districts. The truck that delivers his produce heads to Keene for its next stop and is always “loaded to the gills with fresh fruit and fresh veggies,” he describes.

While government requirements for the inclusion of more produce and whole grains have helped start a trend toward healthier school lunches, there are still some deeply rooted favorites that stick around.

“There’s a perception of a meal that may be unhealthy, but it’s the most popular meal,” explains Walsh.

He gives the example of hot dogs, which spur the highest lunch purchase rate of any meal offered on the MRSD menu.

To keep this longtime favorite in circulation in a way that works for everyone, Walsh schedules it once a menu cycle (about once a month). The hot dog is paired with a whole grain bun and a fruit and vegetable portion selected by the child.

FAMILIAR BRANDS AT THE CAFETERIA

Serving food that the majority of kids will eat is a delicate balance, but one that’s been made easier by investment in making healthier products on the part of big-name brands. When the standards for school nutrition began to shift 10 years ago, food producers saw the change coming.

“They knew that they had to reformulate to meet the guidelines,” Walsh explains.

Now, many of the products you see in the grocery store are the same ones available in schools, including options like breakfast cereal packs. Brands were able to meet the sugar, whole-grain and portion requirements so they could remain viable in the school setting.

The reformulation of popular foods has made it much easier for schools to purchase and use products with which children and families are familiar. For Walsh, that’s a win because students eat foods they enjoy at a reasonable price.

“All the schools … we work really hard at this all the time. Everybody tries to do the very best to make it affordable, to make it healthy and to make it something that the kids want to eat,” he says, adding, “And it’s working.”

There are clear next steps out there for continued improvement of the school nutrition guidelines, such as reducing sodium and further increasing whole grain requirements. However, the current federal administration has not opted to move in that direction.

“But they didn’t backtrack, which is a positive thing,” Walsh notes.

For now, a lot of the onus rests on schools to keep up the creativity with offerings like MRSD’s fruit buffet. Walsh hopes that families will continue to share their ideas and input at the district’s quarterly Wellness Policy Committee meetings.

At LEAF Charter School, which launched in 2017, the feedback loop is a bit more immediate because preparing school meals is part of the actual curriculum each day.

“Students have a hand in planning gardens, growing food, meal planning, cooking and serving meals. It’s a special system that offers students ownership over what and how they eat,” says Laura Syria, who runs LEAF’s Food & Garden program alongside Ellen Denny.

“They also get to ‘dig deeper’ by researching the agricultural practices of prehistoric societies in their humanities class, discussing local economies and food security in their economics class, designing food-producing aquaponics systems in their product design class, etc.,” Benedetto says. “Lunch is more than just lunch!”

Involving students at this level helps build community and fosters “a school culture where everyone is in, and nobody is out,” Syria says. But that doesn’t mean that every meal is a hit. “My biggest challenge has been to offer food that the kids will eat. There’s a definite learning curve to cooking food that 50+ people will enjoy,” she says.

For instance, she’s heard plenty of griping about the school’s sourdough bread, which she considers delicious.

“We have a neat opportunity to expose kids to a healthier way of eating and with that comes some resistance from those who aren’t used to it,” she notes.

However, as the school year progresses, fewer complaints and more willingness to try new things seem to be the trend.

“Parents come to pick up their kids at the end of the day and say, ‘I can’t believe you got my kid to eat sauerkraut!’” Benedetto says with a laugh.

MOVING THE LUNCH LINE FORWARD

The LEAF lunch program is ripe with opportunity for learning, but just like any school meal program, it comes with a price tag.

“Maintaining a high-quality program on a tight budget is always an issue,” Benedetto says.

The school is lucky to work with an array of local partners who offer fair food prices and sometimes donations. LEAF also relies on raised and grant funds to keep the food and garden program viable.

While it’s a juggling act for the school’s leadership, it’s a game-changer for some students who Benedetto says, “have definitely expressed that they come to school hungry and rely on us for their main meal of the day.”

Because LEAF’s lunch program is part of the curriculum, lunch is free for all students.

“We are creating a culture where everyone has a seat at the table, to eat and to share their voice, every day,” Syria says.

Keeping meal costs down is a challenge across all schools, and Walsh is proud that MRSD has been able to keep their meals affordable. The district enrolls significant numbers of students who meet free and reduced lunch qualifications and many other students who also rely on school for much of their daily nutrition.

Walsh works with the state and the school board to set appropriate meal pricing each year, which right now lands at $2.50 at the elementary schools and $2.90 at the high school.

“It’s a really good value,” Walsh says.

Aside from the cost, time is another big factor schools grapple with.

“The school day is so tight now,” Walsh notes. With a heavy load of academic requirements to meet, fitting in time for food is a legitimate issue. But he says MRSD “has done a good job of finding enough time.”

Recess and activity times are scheduled on either side of lunch to offer some flexibility and efficient service protocols help to get everyone fueled up for the rest of the day.

In Syria’s mind, daily mealtimes at school are invaluable.

“This is about more than eating food,” she says. “It’s about creating thriving communities … creating a community with wellness at its core has a profound impact.”

Caroline Tremblay writes from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.