From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Even 9-year-olds can be wistful about days gone by. "We used to have pretzels dipped in nacho cheese sauce," recalls Palmquist Elementary fifth grader Nick Weiser, of lunchtime back in kindergarten. That was before the Oceanside, Calif., school district began remaking its cafeteria menus in 2006, with a focus on healthy eating. In came figs and couscous, out went fries and corn dogs-and nacho cheese sauce. "We eliminated that, which I am kind of sad about," says Nick.

But Nick found plenty to like about the new foods on his lunch tray and how he felt after eating them. "I have more energy for my assignments."

That is just what Vino Mitra, the nutrition-services director for Oceanside's 20,000 students, hoped would happen. Before, lunch often consisted of prepackaged pizza and canned fruit. Sugary flavored milk was what most kids drank each day. Today they still have pizza, but the crust is whole grain, with low-fat cheese, and flavored milk is a once-a-week treat. Mitra allows that purists will call for a full ban on sweetened milk, but, he says, "I can't change them overnight. Food is not nutritious until it gets into their stomachs."

Getting it there has been a process. "When I introduced vegetarian burgers, some thought it was meat, and it went into the dumpsters." Now, veggie or turkey burgers are popular. And after helping to grow fruits and vegetables in Palmquist's organic garden, more kids have become open-minded about eating them. "My favorite is cauliflower," says 9-year-old Arden Napoli. "It's a weird vegetable, but good."

All these changes earned the 23-school district a 2010 "Golden Carrot" award from the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which comes with a $3,000 prize. "Their 'Lean & Green' veggie meals program really stood out," says PCRM dietician Katie Strong.

Better than the award is the noticeable student improvement. "I am convinced that nutrition and learning go hand in hand," says teacher Mark Wagner. His kids seem "much more focused."

That extra nutritional boost is particularly important for 50 percent of the kids who use the free-lunch program. "For a lot of them, this is the healthiest meal they eat all day," says Mitra, who is trying to make breakfast-eggs, granola bars, fresh fruit, yogurt-free for all. (Otherwise, lunch is $2.25 and breakfast $1.) And while there will always be food that goes uneaten (they are kids, after all), Oceanside has a new way of dealing with it. Says fifth grader Nathan Swank: "We compost it."