Efforts to make Del Norte County's students eat more healthy at school are paying off, according to a recent study funded by the California Endowment.

The study found that most students attending Del Norte schools approve of the new meals they've been getting recently, while local officials say youngsters are actually looking forward to eating more fruits and vegetables.

"The aroma of the food is enticing," said Brooke Davis, principal at Mary Peacock Elementary School, last week. "Yesterday we had turkey and gravy with rice and you could smell it throughout the school. It was enticing me to go have lunch, it was really good."

The California Endowment selected the Del Norte County Unified School District and nine others to participate in an evaluation of new meals. The study, prepared by the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, examined how districts were implementing new nutrition requirements set down by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The federal law took effect in the 2012andndash;13 school year.

As part of the case study, Atkins Center researchers visited one school in each of the 10 districts and interviewed students in grades four through 12. In Del Norte, researchers focused on fourth- and fifth-graders at Mary Peacock.

Last spring, Atkins Center Associate Specialist Michelle Ross, the project manager for the case study, interviewed 63 students at Mary Peacock and found that 92 percent of students liked the new school lunches. Eighty-six percent of students approved of the school breakfasts, according to the case study. During the survey, 69 percent of students said they ate all or some of their lunch, according to the report.

Researchers also interviewed Del Norte parents, most of whom said they agreed with the recent changes made to school food.

"I was very impressed by Del Norte's efforts to bring in professional chefs to work with their food service staff and to provide continual training," Ross said, praising the district's efforts to serve more foods cooked from scratch. "It is the only school district that we worked with that spoke about bringing in a professional chef to provide professional development. It's a unique strategy for how they were moving forward with improving school meals."

The district obtained a $35,000 Healthy School Meals grant from the California Endowment, said Deborah Kravitz, the district's director of nutritional services.

Even though it's a small district, the challenges Del Norte County has experienced when implementing the new nutrition rules aren't much different from the other districts that participated in the study, Kravitz said. Having the right facilities, tools and equipment to cook and serve the healthier meals has been a problem, she said.

But one thing that may set Del Norte apart from the other study participants, many of which are in the San Joaquin Valley, is access to locally grown produce, Kravitz said. The district is buying produce from Ocean Air Farms in Fort Dick and has been working with the Community Alliance of Family Farmers in Humboldt County to obtain fruit and vegetables from other local growers.

"The district is really working hard to continue Harvest of the Month and to also identify produce to use in the school nutrition program," Kravitz said. "We're buying produce from Ocean Air Farms to put on the school menu. I'm (also) buying lettuce and greens and herbs from Crescent Elk's organic garden. In fact, (I've bought) an average of five to 15 pounds of greens like Romain and red and green leaf (lettuce) from Joe Gillespie's students."

Nearly 90 percent of all students the Atkins Center interviewed across the state say they like the taste of school food at least sometimes, according to the California Endowment. Eighty-four percent say they like what's on the school menus now.

Matthew Kagan, a spokesman for the California Endowment, said skeptics of the new nutrition requirements thought students wouldn't like the healthier meals. The Atkins Center's study allays those fears, he said.

"There was certainly that fear out there that if you give kids more fruits and vegetables, they're not going to want to eat it," Kagan said, adding that California and many of its districts, including Del Norte, began making school meals healthier a long time ago. "And part of the intent behind the study was to find out if that was true or not."

Davis said in addition to wanting to eat the new entrees, her students love the new salad bar, which has been available two days a week for three years. Also, youngsters who normally bring their lunches from home have begun to warm to the new meals thanks to the recent addition of "lucky tray day," she said.

On lucky tray day, introduced by Kravitz earlier this year as a way to increase participation in the school meals program, students get small prizes like a water bottle or ear phones if their tray carries the winning number.

"We're getting kids who don't often eat hot lunch or who have never eaten hot lunch to try it," Davis said. "They find that this (food) is good. This is something I really want to eat."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.