THORNDIKE, Maine — It took just moments at lunchtime Tuesday for the calm of the empty Mount View High School cafeteria to dissolve into near-chaos, as hungry, boisterous students jockeyed for position around some of the day’s kitchen offerings: chicken cacciatore, pepperoni pizza and American chop suey.

It was a scene that on the surface, at least, was replicated in countless schools around the state. But school lunch in Regional School Unit 3, home to the Mount View school complex, is special. Thanks to a heavy focus on locally sourced foods, the chicken cacciatore is made with summer squash and zucchini grown at nearby farms and the American chop suey features ground beef from cattle raised in the rolling green fields just across the road from the school. Thanks in part to the Obama-era push for healthier meals in schools, the decadent-looking pepperoni pizza is made with a whole wheat crust and low-sodium, low-fat cheese. Moreover, because the district qualifies for federal funding, every one of the district’s students can eat a nutritious, balanced breakfast and lunch at the school for free.

An RSU 3 official said current rollbacks of the Obama-era school nutrition standards shouldn’t endanger what makes the district unique. But she is also hoping the move toward relaxing the standards will not go much further, so school lunches will not return to the old days of mystery meat when scratch cooking, healthy ingredients and fresh produce were afterthoughts, if present in cafeterias at all.

“I’m on board with staying right where we’re at,” Allison Daugherty, school nutrition director for RSU 3, said of the nutrition standards. “Our mission is to provide students with a nutritious meal that they can choose in order to help them with academic success. That’s our only mission.”

Earlier this month, Sonny Perdue, the new head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a proclamation to “make school meals great again,” which begins the process of relaxing guidelines on whole grains, sodium and milk that have been in place since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010. Perdue said the relaxation of the guidelines is a way to begin returning control of school lunches to states and local school boards, after hearing “years of feedback” from students, schools and food experts about the challenges of meeting the stricter regulations. In the shorter term, the USDA will allow more sodium in meals, allow higher-fat and sweetened milk and reduce whole-grain requirements.

“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program,” Perdue said in a May 1 news release issued by the USDA.

Making school lunch great?

Critics, though, fear the rollback of standards is based more in politics than science, and that it will diminish efforts to improve health outcomes for children. Caitlin Hills, a member of the Regional School Unit 71 board of directors from Belfast, said she was discouraged by the USDA announcement.

“As a parent and as a member of the school board who has been deeply involved in nutrition policy for our district, I am very disheartened that the government is giving our food service directors instructions to include more sodium, more fat and fewer vegetables in our children’s diet,” she said. “That’s not what our children need and that’s not what our country needs.”

Those words were echoed by Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. She said that for many children, school is the only place they get healthy food.

“So it’s important they get adequate nutrition. Not just chicken nuggets and fries because it’s what they like,” she said. “In an ideal world — and we’re not in one — there’d be better funding for school lunches. They’d be tasty and appealing, as well as nutrition-rich. I think schools need to be a place where children are introduced to healthful foods they’re not getting at home.”

For one model of how to do that, look at RSU 3. The rural district encompasses 11 towns in Waldo County and counts about 1,300 students, many of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch, a common federal marker for poverty. In fact, because so many students in the district qualified for food aid, two years ago, RSU 3 began participating in the Community Eligibility Provision. The provision is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and allows the country’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students. That has been important for the district’s students, according to RSU 3 school board director Rachel Katz of Troy.

“For such a rural, lower socio-economic district, that’s a huge deal to be able to provide healthy food across the board, free of charge,” she said. “It’s not just making them healthier. It’s also teaching them to make good choices by showing them what healthy meals look like.”

District officials have adhered to a philosophy that the free food ought to be nutritious and delicious, too. That is partly because RSU 3 is in the heart of Maine’s farm country. Nearly a decade ago, school board members who were frustrated by the poor quality of school lunch began making a concerted effort to buy from local farmers and get better quality food. Now, RSU 3 spends about 40 percent of its food budget of $477,000 on local produce, protein, milk and more. The school works with more than a dozen farmers and producers to hit that 40 percent mark.

“We really have an emphasis on working with local farmers. We source produce and protein sources as well. We buy whole cows and whole pigs and send them to the butcher,” Daugherty said. “We do an amazing program here. It’s very unique in comparison to most school nutrition programs in the country and Maine.”

Unique program feeds all students

Even though the breakfast and lunches are free to students, the kitchen staff cannot slack off on quality, Daugherty said. Unless enough students partake of the free meals, the school is in danger of losing its ability to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision.

“That’s why the local stuff is so wonderful. It’s so fresh and it tastes delicious,” she said. “And in order for our subsidy to reimburse us for the cost, the food’s got to be good. If the food isn’t good, the kids won’t eat it, even if it’s free.”

That became extra clear to her when the nutrition standards put in place through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act became stricter year after year, in terms of whole grains, sodium and fat. Last year, the district was supposed to use f lour or grain products that were at least 50 percent whole grain, with the rest enriched flour. It was a tough sell to the students who didn’t know what to make of whole wheat pasta and other foods that had previously been white.

“Kids said, ‘Why is my macaroni and cheese brown?’” Daugherty recalled. “Mac and cheese was a really popular day until it went brown. … There’s a lot of families in this area in particular, they eat white bread. Either they can’t afford anything else or they don’t know anything different. And I saw a dip in participation.”

The district asked for and received a pasta waiver, and students came back to the macaroni and cheese.

“I’m happy where they’re at, with the new rollback,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want the USDA to keep on rolling the standards — or the funding for schools like hers — back. “That would be an absolute awful, awful outcome.”

When Katz was asked what she thought about Purdue’s proclamation about school lunch, she didn’t mince words.

“I would love for him to tell me when school lunch was great, so we can make it great again,” she said. “I already think it’s pretty exceptional, for this district in particular, which does struggle in a lot of ways but is trying to be innovative in a lot of ways to meet the needs of our students and community.”

Farm to school fans

After the busy lunch rush slowed at the Mount View cafeteria, Jessie Blanchette, 16, of Unity filled her plate with an egg salad wrap and a pile of vegetables and pickles and took a minute to explain what the high quality of her school’s food has meant to her.

“I love it,” she said of her school’s lunch, adding that she thinks it’s good to source food from local farmers and producers. “I prefer fresh.”

Students like Blanchette notice when the local food they’ve come to count on disappears from the menu, Daugherty said. The salad bar usually is full of greens from the McKay Farm and Research Station just down the road in Thorndike. The fresh greens are full of spicy, bitter and sweet flavors, and when the school can’t get them, the students react with disappointment to the ordinary lettuce from the wholesale distributor in its place.

“The kids say, ‘What’s up with the lettuce?’” Daugherty said with a laugh.

That kind of participation in the program and appreciation of fresh produce and other locally sourced food is important to the nutrition program. And the program is critical to student well-being, she said.

“There’s a lot of research out there that participating in school lunch and breakfast increases academic performance on tests and decreases absenteeism and days missed, decreases behavioral issues and increases your academic performance in general,” Daugherty said. “We want our students to succeed. And how are you going to succeed if you’re hungry and your tummy’s growling?”