LAKETON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — The lunch menu at the Pennsylvania Elementary School contains a few items that might raise parents' eyebrows.
Instead of hot dogs, French fries and pizza, the west Michigan school's preschoolers and kindergartners are served quinoa with roasted turkey and dried cherries, salads with corn salsa and black beans or couscous with squash, zucchini and carrots.
All the food is prepared by Mia and Grace, the popular downtown restaurant that serves locally-sourced, organic and often homemade, food.
The seemingly haute cuisine isn't a response to the students' discerning tastes, but rather a way to encourage healthy eating while they are still young, said Jami Young, the director and founder of the Winter Sun Schoolhouse, which has partnered with the Reeths-Puffer school district to run a pilot program at Pennsylvania elementary.
"I was kind of an instigator behind the Pennsylvania pilot program and one of my goals there was to feed the children whole, natural, organic foods," she said.
Young said she approached the restaurant's owners because they were making the kind of food she wanted to serve her students. She said she also had a relationship with the restaurant's owners, Jeremy and Jamie Paquin, because their daughter attends Winter Sun Schoolhouse.
Jamie Paquin said she approaches the school lunches the same way she approaches meals at Mia and Grace.
"We're adopting the same philosophy," she said, referring to the restaurant's farm-to-table concept, "but adopting flavor profiles that kids would enjoy."
The school does not have a full kitchen on site, Paquin said, so she prepares the lunches after the restaurant closes, although prep work occurs throughout the day in between other tasks.
The school menu runs 30 days and serves primarily cold lunches, although Paquin said she comes in on Mondays to serve hot soup and to talk to the students about where the food came from.
The menu rotates and changes every three to four months, depending on the season, she said. Paquin also said she tries to use as much locally-sourced and organic ingredients as possible.
And like the meals served at the downtown restaurant, Paquin said they make most of their meals from scratch, including the condiments and breads. The food is served in eco-friendly divided containers.
But not all the school lunches feature quinoa and hummus.
One popular item, Paquin said, is grilled chicken nuggets, made with chicken breast cut into bite-sized chunks, seared and covered in a pineapple glaze.
The nuggets are served with pita "fries" and a dipping sauce made with pureed roasted tomatoes and peppers.
Paquin explained why the dish was so popular.
"It's something really familiar to the kids," she said. "It's a healthy take on a really familiar feature."
The lunch program is optional, said Young and Paquin, and each meal costs $3.70 a day. Paquin said not all of the students participate five days a week and the number of lunches she has to prepare ranges from about 19 to 41 per day.
According to Young, there are about 150 students enrolled at the school.
Occasionally a pupil won't eat whatever is prepared that day, Young said, but for the most part the students eat their lunch.
"We've had some really good success with kids trying new food and just stretching out," Young said about the program.
Young and Paquin explained that students were more likely to try new foods if they saw their friends and teachers eat it as well. Paquin also said that kids "eat with their eyes first," so she tries to make the lunchboxes look "really colorful and fun."
The program is still in its early stages - it began in August, they said - but Young and Paquin have applied for a "farm to school" federal grant, which would allow them to explore ways in which they could expand the lunch program to the rest of the school district.
They said they expect to find out if they've received the grant at the end of October.