TWIN FALLS, Idaho — School cafeterias here aren’t what they used to be, and more and more students are opting for the fresh, healthy, tasty fare they provide.

There has been a seismic shift in school meals, reflecting the broader societal focus on healthy, quality food, said Dayle Hayes, registered dietitian and award-winning author and educator on school nutrition.

The perception of unhealthy, precooked, prepared food in school cafeterias is outdated. School nutrition programs are moving more and more toward fresh and local quality ingredients cooked from scratch, she said during a school nutrition day presented by the Idaho Dairy Council in partnership with the Idaho Department of Education and local school districts.

“It’s a whole new ball game,” she said.

The quality and popularity of school lunches is obvious at Canyon Ridge High School where students rush to get in line for any of five options, all teaming with a seemingly endless supply of fresh fruits and vegetables and coolers of plain and flavored milk jugs.

Despite an open-campus policy where teenagers can run off to several nearby fast-food places, half of the school’s students head for the cafeteria on a daily basis.

Tuesday they could choose from a salad bar with protein options, a sandwich line serving turkey hoagies on fresh-baked bread with plentiful fresh fixings, a hot lunch featuring piping-hot chicken fettuccini to rival good Italian restaurants, wholesome whole grain pizza with fresh cheese and vegetables and grab-and-go bountiful turkey sandwiches and healthy salads.

Primarily, the school lunch is “delicious,” said Cole Hunt, 18, a senior at Canyon Ridge, who chooses the cafeteria to fuel his body for not only learning but also his participation in school sports.

“They’re trying to provide healthy alternatives, and they’re doing a good job. It’s healthy and tasty, and all the lunch ladies are super, super nice,” he said.

School lunches offers plenty of protein, fruits and vegetables and he always feels satisfied, he said.

Sophomore and school athlete Orion Shirley, 16, said she appreciates that school lunches are all about healthy food and she’s able to get enough so she’s not “starving before practice.”

“They do a good job giving us different options. You can always find something you like,” she said.

That is music to Lori Rieth, food service director for Twin Falls School District.

“We try very hard to come up with recipes kids will like and stay within the (USDA Dietary) Guidelines. We can’t please everyone, but we try to get as many as we can,” she said.

With the percentage of district students qualifying for free and reduced-cost meals growing — from 58.4 percent last school year to 64.8 percent this school year — it’s increasingly important to provide healthy and tasty school meals, she said.

“It may be the only meal they get for the day. We make sure it’s appealing, healthy and that they’re getting enough,” she said.

The fact that half of the students at Canyon Ridge choose the cafeteria in an open-campus situation speaks to the popularity of school lunches, said Principal Kasey Teske.

Kitchen helpers who love the kids and make them feel welcome goes a long way in that success, he said.

“We know the brain works much better when fully fueled,” he said.

That’s why the school is working on tweaking its breakfast schedule. High school students don’t like to wake up early and, consequently, participation in the school breakfast program is not as strong – except for “late-start Wednesdays,” he said.

Knowing that the only or best meal a lot of the students will have on any given day will be at school is impetus for the school to take advantage of the opportunities to provide students with healthy and appealing choices, said Canyon Ridge Vice President Mike Gemar.

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