Children at Ygnacio Elementary School in Concord pick up lunch from a new serving counter.

Children at Ygnacio Elementary School in Concord pick up lunch from a new serving counter.

Thanks to new equipment in school kitchens, made possible by special U.S. Department of Agriculture grants, schools around the country are now serving fresher, healthier and more appealing food to students, according to research by the UC Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI).

"Years of federal neglect have resulted in many poorly equipped school kitchens, making it impossible to serve the nutritious meals that students need, particularly in light of the obesity epidemic that has affected so many youngsters," said Kenneth Hecht, NPI coordinator.

During the past six years, Congress provided nearly $200 million to help schools purchase new equipment. Pew Charitable Trusts engaged NPI to see whether the grants enabled schools to make more meals from scratch with locally grown food and lead children to make healthy food choices.

NPI researchers visited 19 schools across the country to see new equipment in action and interview food service professionals, administrators and students. Their report was issued this month by Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Just one new appliance or serving station can have surprising impact on meal programs and students,” Hecht said. “Because of the USDA's School Kitchen Grants, more students are choosing school meals and they are eating more fruits, vegetables and other healthy options.”

The Nutrition Policy Institute, a statewide program that is part of UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, contracted with Pew to take a close look at a sample of representative schools that received the USDA kitchen equipment grants. The 19 schools – in the states of Kansas, Kentucky, California, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, North Dakota and Maine – were chosen to represent a range of sizes, grade levels and community types (urban, suburban and rural).

One of the schools in the study was Ygnacio Valley Elementary School in Concord, where the worn and dimly lit serving line made meals look lackluster. With the USDA grant, the school purchased a new serving counter with heated and refrigerated serving wells to keep dishes at proper temperatures, a salad bar and under-counter lighting that draws attention to colorful produce and other healthy fare.

“Children are taking and eating more fruits and vegetables because they can actually see how beautiful the food is and get to it easily,” says Megan Webb, the school's food service manager.

Another California school involved in the research, Robertson Intermediate School in Daly City, used the grant funds to purchase a large, three-door refrigerator and a warming oven. The upgrades helped the school increase the number and appeal of its entrée options and made it possible to contract with a different meal vendor for the 2015-16 school year.

“We absolutely needed new equipment; what we had barely functioned,” said Audra Pittman, superintendent of the Bayshore Elementary School District.

“The food is really good,” said one student cafeteria helper. “It's much better than last year.”