TRAVERSE CITY — Tyler Huffman munched on a piece of lettuce as East Middle School’s cafeteria hummed with the sound of hundreds of students chowing down on lunch.
Huffman, an eighth grader, swallowed and speared another green leaf with his fork while he considered why he bought a salad Tuesday afternoon from the school cafeteria — a food realm that until recently was dominated by deep fryers, soda pop and Doritos.
“They’re actually really good and (are) included in a meal here,” Huffman said of the salad. “It just tastes really good and it’s healthy, too.”
Traverse City Area Public Schools officials said students like Huffman are increasingly reaching for fruits and vegetables instead of chips and candy bars, indicating a district-wide push to offer more nutritious meals with an emphasis on locally-grown produce is paying off.
Tom Freitas, TCAPS’ food and nutrition services director, is leading the district’s health and nutrition charge. Freitas was hired this year from Sandusky, Ohio, where he was a statewide leader in farm-to-school food programs.
His philosophy on improving what students eat comes down to two things: nutrition and proper portion sizes. Both are part of a TCAPS’ emphasis on serving full meals at low prices.
Students must select three of five components — milk, fruit, vegetable, grain and protein — for a lunch to count as a meal. One of the three components must be either a fruit or a vegetable. Students often pay less for such a whole meal than they do for a la carte items like hamburgers.
“The idea is to get them eating a meal,” Freitas said. “We don’t want them eating a bunch of snacks.”
Food choices at East Middle School last Tuesday included Sloppy Joes, sandwiches, hamburgers, veggie burgers and two Chinese dishes. One of them, General Tso’s chicken, was a clear student favorite. The other, a tofu and veggie stir-fry, received considerably less attention.
Large baskets of fruit near the cafeteria’s cash registers displayed locally-grown offerings, like pears and apples from Antrim County’s King Orchards and Friske Orchards. Students also bought peaches from Rasch Family Orchards, of Grand Rapids, and broccoli from Middle Branch Farm, of Marion.
John King, of King Orchards, said he’s happy to help kids get healthy food at school. TCAPS also provides an additional buyer in King Orchards’ diverse clientele base.
“I’m long on some sweet corn right now,” King said. “I think I’ll give them a call.”
TCAPS’ farm-to-school efforts are still relatively small. The district, which serves roughly 6,000 lunches per day, spent about $2 million on food in the 2012-13 school year. Most of that money went to Grand Rapids-based mega distributor Gordon Food Service.
Only about $35,000 -- 1.7 percent of the total food cost -- went to distributors of locally-grown fruits and vegetables.
But Freitas said TCAPS is working with distributors like Cherry Capital Foods and with farmers in the region to build the program.
“It takes time to put all this together,” Freitas said.
The district has also set aside several “Traverse City Area Days” in October to exclusively feature local food in school lunches.
Maxbauer Specialty Meat Market is preparing 6,000 hot dogs and 6,000 polish sausages for those meals.
Maxbauer owner Mark Wilson said the district’s purchase is the biggest single sale of sausages ever in the 100-year history of the business.
“It’s a great opportunity for us and for kids to taste real good hot dogs,” Wilson said.
Still all the healthy and local food initiatives in the world won’t change the eating habits of many students. Several at East Middle School said they buy a piece of fruit or vegetables only to qualify for cheaper full-meal prices -- a practice one student referred to as “take it and toss it.”
One table of particularly boisterous eighth grade girls seemed to object to cafeteria food on principle. Their loud shouts suggested lunch at East Middle School regularly borders on inedible.
“It looks like brains,” Olivia Olson said of the General Tso’s chicken being consumed by scores of her classmates.
But one student at the table, Jalynn Brumfield, challenged that mob mentality. She said the food is good and healthy, and she’s better for it.
“We’re pretty healthy,” Brumfield said.