SUN PRAIRIE — Two years ago, administrators at Sacred Hearts Catholic School noticed a sudden drop in the number of students buying hot lunches from the cafeteria.
They soon learned a boycott was under way, led by a group of seventh-graders and involving dozens of students.
"We weren't getting the nutrition we needed," said Kelly Brehmer, 13, an eighth-grader who took part in the boycott as a sixth-grader. The food wasn't healthy enough, she said, and the menus were too repetitious.
The student revolt led to sweeping changes. Made-from-scratch meals, using fresh vegetables grown locally, replaced much of the highly processed government food. An amped-up salad bar sprouted garbanzo beans, cabbage and pea pods. Sweet desserts faded to just a twice-a-month treat.
The overhauled lunch program, now in its second school year, has been deemed a success by administrators, parents and — yes — students, putting the Catholic school near the forefront of national efforts to improve school lunches.
"My kids will come home and say the lunch today was awesome, and it will have been something like creamy greens," said Theresa Guelker, the parent of two Sacred Hearts students.
Principal Kim Frederick doesn't fault prior kitchen staff. A school's culture must be ready for such major changes, and that hadn't been the case until recently, she said.
The changes haven't come cheap. Homemade meals require more prep time — lots of cutting and chopping, said Susan Young, a professionally trained chef hired as kitchen manager in the summer of 2011.
Before the changes, each daily lunch took about 17 staff hours to prepare. That figure rose to 23 staff hours during the 2011-12 school year, the first year of the changes, Young said.
The school has 380 K-8 students, of which about 300 eat a hot lunch on any given day. The student meal price remained unchanged at $2 for the first year of the changes.
Overall, labor costs rose 25 percent and food costs 33 percent. The school spent $150,367 on its lunch program the first year of the changes, an increase of almost $50,000 from the prior year.
The program had been running a financial surplus, so that helped cushion some of the blow, Frederick said. Also, demand surged. Student participation in the meal program rose 27 percent, while adult participation — staff members, parents and others — jumped 37 percent.
Still, the lunch program ended last year with a $15,000 deficit, which the school absorbed, Frederick said. She believes it was worth it. "We're not just providing healthy meals but educating children about nutrition and exposing them to new foods," she said.
This year, the meal price rose to $2.30, and it will likely increase to around $2.50 next year, Young said.
By comparison, Madison charges $2.50 this year for lunches at its public elementary schools and $2.90 at middle and high schools.
Young, a former caterer who served as the pastry chef at both The White Horse Inn and Clay Market Cafe, two well-respected Dane County restaurants, said her goal is to gradually broaden student palates. Children can get small samples of unfamiliar foods, and she has introduced "World Wide Wednesdays," featuring food from other countries and cultures.
"With kids, you really have to get to the yummy factor, and yummy is a lot about how it looks," she said. "We work a lot on color and presentation."
Food waste, which has not gone up with the changes, is closely monitored to weed out menu clunkers. Tuna wraps, tried once, never returned.
On a recent school day, the menu included baked squash grown 20 miles away in Fall River and spinach from nearby DeForest.
"She cooks stuff with lots of nutrients," said first-grader Grace Durham, 7, as she put an orange vegetable she did not recognize into her mouth. "I guess they call this squash."
She gave it a thumbs up, then capped off her meal with a trip to the salad bar.