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School cafeterias are trying to figure out how to be more appealing to kids


Thanks to extra pandemic funding, schools across the country tried a new idea - free school lunches to every student, regardless of need. Now even though the funding has expired, nine states, including Colorado, are keeping universal free lunch. Colorado's Public Radio Jenny Brundin reports that the school nutritionists say the meals are healthier than what students would buy elsewhere.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: School cafeterias statewide are gearing up to feed more children. But one district, Greeley, already provides free lunches and has for the last three years. Still, fewer than half the kids in this district north of Denver actually eat school lunch regularly. But the numbers are going up. Almost every kid in the district ate school lunch at least once last year. Danielle Bock is on a mission to get even more.

DANIELLE BOCK: Now, my staff think that we can serve 100% of kids, and I tell them that's a lot of meals. So I'm going to shoot for 95% next year. That's what I want.

BRUNDIN: Bock heads Greeley's nutrition program. She says free meals for all reduced stigma and more kids headed to the cafeteria. Now Bock wants to get those hard-to-reach kids to stay on campus for what research says is the healthiest meal kids will eat all day.

BOCK: We know that when we keep ninth and 10th grade kids in school during the meal period, they eat with us. But when we open up campus, they may not even eat.

BRUNDIN: But even when a hamburger, fries and a drink are free at school, cafeterias still face stiff competition. In high schools with open campuses, the urge to leave and fill up on Chick-fil-A or Chipotle is strong. That's a huge challenge for nutrition chiefs like Denver Public Schools' Theresa Hafner. A lot of students are already eligible for free meals, but not a lot take it up. This year, when everybody can get free breakfast and lunch, she wants to be ready. So she's here on this massive convention floor. It's the School Nutrition Association's annual convention.

THERESA HAFNER: Do you have the breakfast Uncrustables?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, so these are the egg, turkey, sausage and cheese...

BRUNDIN: For high school students, Hafner's got her eye on more grab-and-go breakfast foods and a new coffee smoothie drink. And...

HAFNER: I am super excited about this.

BRUNDIN: Now she's looking at something else to entice a new generation of students - more and more, they want food and packaging that's good for the planet.

HAFNER: This is jackfruit.

BRUNDIN: It's a massive green fruit from Asia. But when cooked, it's a vegan or vegetarian option to pulled pork or chicken. She tries an enchilada bowl using jackfruit from a Dole rep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let me get a piece of cilantro on there for you.



BRUNDIN: Hafner loves it. Alternatives to meat, which is hard on the environment, is a growing section on the show floor. Along with Denver, Greeley has a sizable population of Muslim students who don't eat pork and some other meats prepared at school.

BOCK: This looks like whole muscle. It looks like a real chicken nugget.

BRUNDIN: Danielle Bock and her executive chef Kris Simmons try some plant-based nuggets.

BOCK: That is really good. What is the protein? What are we using? What's this made out of?

BRUNDIN: It's soy protein to have a taste and texture that mimics chicken. The Rebellyous Foods booth is hopping after some students gave them rave reviews in a convention session.

BOCK: Kris, how would we use that?

KRIS SIMMONS: I think my first instinct would be to use it for boneless wings. The wing bars have been really popular in our high schools.

BRUNDIN: And then there's something else to entice kids - packaging. Packaging? Yeah, packaging. Students pay attention to that now, thanks to billions of advertising dollars targeting them.

BOCK: I'd like to know about these.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, these are where we call our grab-and-go green line. So these are 99% compostable product.

BRUNDIN: Bock and Simmons check out a sleek sandwich wedge in an upscale-looking package, something students might see off campus. It costs a bit more, but Chef Simmons says there are trade-offs. Aside from being convenient and attractive, something else about this packaging could get kids into the cafeteria.

BOCK: What we're hearing from the generation of kids that we have now, even as young as third and fourth grade, is stop putting our food in plastic. Kids want recyclability, and kids want a greener solution.

BRUNDIN: Whether it's packaging or funky new alternatives, Bock says the goal is to keep kids either in or somewhere near the building.

BOCK: Simply put, it fuels them to learn. None of us function well when we're hungry. Kids are no different. So when we're nourishing them, they're going back into class, and they're learning.

BRUNDIN: Nationwide, school cafeterias are still facing post-pandemic staffing shortages and higher food costs. But so far, the vast majority of Colorado school districts say they're ready and willing to feed more hungry kids.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jenny Brundin