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That doesn't surprise Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. Schools have a hard time making wholesome food seem appealing because students have grown up in a "junk-food culture," she said.
"Maybe someday a kids' meal won't be synonymous with chicken nuggets, fries and a soft drink," Wootan said. "But we're not there yet."
People For People chef Kirk Holloway acknowledged the new menu — which includes items like barley salad and lemon herb roasted chicken — leans toward an "adult palate." But he noted students in lower grades are willing to try new things, more than upperclassmen used to eating cheese fries and chicken wings.
Second-grade teacher Marisa Szynal, who sat with some students during a recent lunch, said the benefits of the healthier, family-style meal carry over from the cafeteria to the classroom.
"They're not as wound up in here, so when we go upstairs (to class) it's a lot easier to transition," Szynal said.
Ideally, the benefits will extend even beyond the school. Vetri hopes students will be inspired to replicate their new school lunch experience in their homes and communities, bringing all types of families back to the table to bond.
Too many people forego nourishing, shared meals for the sake of convenience, he said. But taking the extra time is worth it.
"I don't think you can name anything worthwhile and positive that isn't more work and more effort," said Vetri. "The alternative is sitting on the sofa eating a bag of Doritos, watching television."