A recent visit to the Mount View School complex during lunchtime appears as it does at any other school at first glance, with chatty students flocking to the cafeteria line to take their midday meal.

But a closer look reveals that the meals offered in the lunch program are anything but the hot lunches the parents of today’s students likely experienced. Locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables are offered daily, as are a wide variety of whole-wheat pastas, pizza choices, veggie burgers and freshly made turkey sandwiches; and this year, local pork, beef and chicken have been added to the menu.

“No more mystery meat,” said RSU 3 Nutrition Director Cherie Merrill, adding that 40 percent of the district’s annual food budget is spent on local food. “The cost is higher, but the benefits are that the kids are getting healthier, fresher produce.

All students in grade K-12 are offered a free breakfast each day, regardless of whether or not their families are among the 70 percent in the district who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Every morning, students are offered items like fresh fruit, granola, yogurt and a choice of a hot entree, Merrill said. Students in grade K-8 are also offered fruits and vegetables for a daily snack, free of charge.

And, said Merrill, the food service program continues to serve breakfast and lunch to children up to the age of 18 throughout the summer months.

The nutrition program has recently earned recognition for its approach to making menus healthier, Merrill said. RSU 3 was chosen by Tufts University and Harvard Pilgrim Health as one of three school lunch programs in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts that will be used as a model for other schools around the country that want to offer healthier choices to their student populations.

“I’m excited [that] this tiny little school in the state of Maine is getting this kind of attention,” Merrill said.

And apparently, the students are also pleased with the revamped menus. In two years, school lunch participation at the middle school and high school has jumped from about 50 percent to 80 percent. The participation rate for breakfast is now greater than 90 percent at both grade levels, compared to 12 percent at the middle school and 20 percent for the high school two years ago.

These dramatic changes in the meals program have come about because of growing relationships between the district, area farmers, Unity Barn Raisers and particularly the Mount View High School-based group, PeaceJam.

The local PeaceJam chapter, which now includes roughly 20 Mount View High School students, has been building momentum since the group held its first meeting in 2006. Not long after, the group established its global call to action project, eliminating extreme poverty. PeaceJam advisers Cathy Roberts and Mount View High School English Teacher Janet Caldwell have been working with the local PeaceJammers from the beginning, guiding them in their quest to achieve their goal in a number of ways over the last four years.

And they have been busy, to say the least.

Since the group’s beginning, PeaceJammers have planted vegetable gardens on the nearby Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association grounds in 2006, and distributed the organic produce to local food pantries and the school lunch program. Those gardens have since expanded, and are now located at the new MVHS complex.

In the winter of 2009, PeaceJam members donned HAZMAT suits and masks to conduct a dumpster dive. Staff from the Newforest Institute in Brooks and the Unity Recycling Center assisted PeaceJammers in that effort. Once the sorting was done and the bags of trash, recyclables and waste foods were weighed, PeaceJam used the data to plan a waste-sorting system for a recycling and composting program at MVHS.

PeaceJam has since built a partnership with Kinney’s Organic Industrial Composting Farm and Sullivan’s Waste Disposal to help with compostables, which will eventually be used to aid growth in future PeaceJam gardens.

Roberts said Merrill and her crew have been supportive of PeaceJam’s efforts, and have worked well with the students to find ways to reduce waste while operating the healthiest lunch program possible.

“Instead of using the little ketchup packets, for example, the school has now moved to using bulk containers,” said Roberts.

On either side of the cafeteria, PeaceJam members carefully monitor three bins that are labeled for trash, recyclables and composting, an undertaking that Roberts said is going well at the high and middle schools, and will eventually be introduced at the elementary school level.

“The PeaceJam kids did it all last year, and we’re looking for community volunteers to help bring this to the middle school and the elementary schools,” Roberts said.

With the exception of elementary school lunches, students use plates and real silverware, as opposed to the disposable utensils the district used in the past. The plastic containers used for the fruit smoothies are recyclable, and even some of the multi-grain chip bags are compostable. Roberts said Merrill is always working to find new ways to support PeaceJam’s efforts, which also help involve the entire student body with PeaceJam’s overall goal of fighting poverty, especially on the local level.

“It’s supporting the farmers on multiple levels of the local economy,” said Roberts. “And it’s showing kids the connection between growing, buying and eating.”

The undertakings of PeaceJam have not gone unnoticed, especially by the PeaceJam Northeast director, who nominated the local chapter for the PeaceJam Global Call to Action Award for 2010. PeaceJammers created a short video on their projects, which has since been submitted to PeaceJam Northeast, and it has also been posted on YouTube.

The winner of the award receives a visit from Oscar Arias Sanchez, the president of Costa Rica, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a trip to Colorado to accept the award. The honor is given to PeaceJam groups with projects that demonstrate long-term sustainability and have had a positive impact on the community.

While PeaceJammers have had a lot on their plates these days, the youths make time between tending gardens, promoting recycling and attending regular classes to look back on their successes so far, as well as to consider possibilities for the future.

Sept. 24 Ann Gordon and Beth Greeley, independent contractors for the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, visited MVHS to learn more about how PeaceJam and Merrill have worked together to bring about changes in the nutrition program. Gordon and Greeley conducted interviews and collected data that will be part of the health-care company’s second report on childhood obesity. The Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation is also sponsoring the study on school nutrition that is being conducted at Tufts University, Gordon explained.

PeaceJammers Becca Kimball, Colby Hinson, Katie Norsworthy and Lynsie Thomas met with Gordon and Greeley as part of the interviews needed to complete their report.

Kimball explained how last spring PeaceJam students used wet newspaper to create beds for the eight vegetable gardens and the peace sign-shaped flower garden that now grace the grounds at MVHS. Caldwell discussed PeaceJam’s use of free seeds donated by FedCo to get the gardens up and running, and how the students’ work continued through the summer.

“We came back when we needed to water the gardens, and do the weeding,” said Kimball.

Hinson said getting the waste-sorting program on track at the high school has been a worthy effort on many levels.

“Until this becomes something that people accept as normal, people need help knowing what can be recycled and what can be composted, and eventually it becomes natural for them to just compost,” he said.

Several teachers, said Hinson, have expressed interest in learning more about composting, because they had never thought of doing it before PeaceJam brought the sorting system into the school.

“It’s really raised awareness,” Hinson said.

Norsworthy said she feels PeaceJam has been successful in its effort to bring fresh produce to the school lunch program, as has the group’s effort to continue the cycle of consumption, waste sorting, composting and growing.

“I think we’re successful because we’ve made a difference, even though some people might think it’s small,” she said. “I think it’s huge that we’ve been able to have these gardens, and to bring food into the school.”

Thomas said she would like to see more students bring what they’ve learned in the cafeteria home to help their own families. Kimball added that she’d like to see PeaceJammers who go on to college bring their sustainable agriculture and waste sorting experience into their new school environment.

“If their college doesn’t have anything like this, maybe someone could start it there and pay it forward,” said Kimball.