Windham High Senior Gabriel Ransom piles the produce onto his lunch tray. Credit: Patty Wight | Maine Public

This December the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is rolling back school nutrition standards enacted under the Obama administration. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue says the change is needed because too many schools are struggling to serve meals that meet the higher nutrition standards and are also appetizing. Cape Elizabeth High School recently dropped out of the federal lunch program for that very reason.

But at another district in Southern Maine school lunch sales have actually soared since it started dishing out healthier meals.

When the bell rings and it’s time for lunch at Windham High School, students head to what most of us would refer to as the cafeteria. But RSU14 school nutrition director Jeanne Reilly has a different name for it.

“We like to consider ourselves the busiest restaurant in town because we’re serving so many meals,” says Reilly.

3,000 meals per day for the entire district, which includes the town of Raymond. And on this day, a choice of street tacos is on the menu with fish and carnitas options. The pork is roasted and shredded in house. Colorful veggie sides are also prepared from scratch.

It wasn’t too long ago that meals here came out of the freezer or a can. Kids could grab a slice of pizza and a milk and call it lunch. But new federal nutrition standards, which began to take effect in 2012, require that students now also take at least one fruit or vegetable. And here at Windham High, some students pile produce onto their lunch tray.

“I really like this school lunch,” says Senior Gabriel Ransom, who chose both vegetable options to accompany his tacos, and also helped himself to carrots from a fresh fruit and veggie bar.

“That bar — you can put as much as you want on the plate, and it still costs the same,” he says. “Which is amazing. They really encourage you to grab a lot of things. And you can get a really good meal that’s really cheap. I haven’t gotten home lunch since I went to the high school, actually.”

Ransom isn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Over the past decade or so, school lunch participation at Windham High — which has about 1,000 students — has grown from 80 lunches per day to nearly 500. The transition to more healthy, home-cooked meals was a lot of work.

But Windham- Raymond schools have a secret weapon: Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro.

“I am the chef and nutrition coordinator for RSU 14,” she says.

Otherwise known as Chef Sam, who was hired to help RSU14 meet new nutrition guidelines. She regularly visits classrooms to introduce students to new foods and has been known to get a standing ovation when she enters a room.

“We very quickly learned that kid-centric and making kids a part of the change, not something happening to them, became the model to go with to implement these changes as fast as we have,” she says.

Chef Sam explains to students why bread and pasta have been switched to whole grain, and why they’re required to take a serving of a fresh fruits or vegetables. She lets students taste recipes in development to get feedback. She also asks kitchen staff – who typically don’t have culinary backgrounds – whether certain meals are realistic to pull off.

“Someone who’s not trained in culinary skills and then put on the spot and told you need to make this food good for 300 people by 10:45, now go – that’s – that’s a lot. That’s a lot on their shoulders when don’t know exactly how to do it, or what the end product is supposed to be like.”

Chef Sam has since trained kitchen staff in knife skills and batch cooking, so that food served at 12:30 is just as fresh as the food served at 10:45. The school district applied for grants to purchase equipment such as food processors and additional refrigerators to help prep and store fresh food.

Reilly says she also started a marketing campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We market on pretty much any level that’s free,” Reilly says.

The marketing on social media, says Reilly, is aimed at busting the traditional reputation of school lunch, even after the switch to healthier, homemade meals like tandoori chicken and Asian rice bowls.

“It lends credibility. If we say we’re making chicken tenders from scratch, I show a picture of our staff actually breading chicken tenders so that people will believe us,” says Reilly.

The culture around cafeteria food is changing, Reilly says. Parents now send emails to request recipes. That kind of success is why RSU14 doesn’t plan to revert to the lower nutrition standards recently announced by the USDA, which allows schools to serve more refined grains, sodium and flavored low-fat milk. Chef Sam says with the millions of meals served every day, school lunch is an opportunity to change the way a culture eats.

“32 million meals. If we’re exposing them to fresh fruits, vegetables – giving them – try it – samples of quinoa so they can see what it is, they can smell it, they can taste it, they can experience it, then we’re changing the way kids eat for the rest of their lives,” she says.

There is one change afoot in the nutrition department at RSU14. Chef Sam is leaving to raise her young family. But one of the district’s kitchen managers, Ryan Roderick, will be stepping into the chef’s role, where he vows to continue to create a culture of healthy eating. Which is exaclty what Tasha Pongratz, a seventh grader at Jordan-Small Middle School in Raymond, says she wants.

“If you go to a school that just has junk food and stuff, it’s like not a good school,” says Pongratz. “Like, you know they don’t really care about you. This school really makes you feel like they care about what you eat, and they make sure that you’re gonna stay healthy.”

One school lunch at a time.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.