There was a pivotal moment between Jessica Flores' first taste of the rosemary roasted potatoes on her school lunch tray and the fifth-grader's decision to take a second bite.

Seth Bixby Daugherty rarely has had to sweat such hesitation, perhaps not since he first served his signature sandwich of seared foie gras and tangerine marmalade while chef at the swank Cosmos in Minneapolis. Those were heady days, sending extravagant entreés into one of the city's most stunning dining rooms, and being named one of America's 10 best new chefs of 2005 by Food & Wine magazine.

Those days were a little over a year ago.

Today, Bixby Daugherty's hours are spent pondering how much sugar and salt he can pare from an 800-pound lasagne recipe. As founder of the nonprofit Real Food Initiatives, his mission is to improve what students eat between math and recess. (So far, he's whacked half of the 70 pounds of salt, and about two-thirds of the 100 pounds of brown sugar.)

Tater Tots are in his sights.

That's the back story for the diced bits of Yukon Gold potatoes roasted with olive oil, garlic and rosemary recently served at Homecroft Elementary School in St. Paul. It was the dish's debut after months of talking, tweaking and testing.

"I like how they smell," said Jessica. Around the low tables, students treated the potatoes as finger food. Some ate them steadily, wordlessly. Others ignored them in favor of the turkey corn dog and the canned peaches. A few even ate the cucumber slices.

A big name helps a cause

In the past 10 years, schools nationwide have been looking hard at what's on their cafeteria trays, prodded by charges that school lunchrooms are barren deserts of nutrition, the roots of childhood obesity and pawns of fast-food corporations -- all of which can be tough for dedicated school cafeteria managers to take. Barb Mechura, chairwoman of the Minnesota School Food Service Directors, said they're always working toward providing healthful meals. Only when a big name gets attached to the project does it grab the public's attention. True enough.

Still, the group has asked Bixby Daugherty to provide some training and ideas. "We're asking him to help us in managing kitchens better, deal more with scratch cooking and culinary instruction," Mechura said. "We want to develop our personnel to become leaders and to be creative in their jobs -- and to learn how to do more with less."

Proponents of more healthful school lunches got a boost in November from a University of Minnesota study which found that, contrary to suspicions, school lunch sales don't decline when more healthful meals are served. Morever, while cooking healthier takes a little more effort, and thus higher labor costs, the study said that's offset by lower costs for foods such as fruits and vegetables compared with processed foods.

Also, schools are listening to people who generally are about 4 feet tall.

"They're our customers," said Patricia Mergens, nutrition services coordinator for St. Paul's public schools, a leader nationally in the healthful lunch movement. Jean Ronnei, executive director of its nutrition services, is the current Golden School Foodservice Director of the Year for her leadership in putting such foods as Hmong beef fried rice, Somali chicken suqaar and Mexican rice and beans on the menu.

Avoiding the blame game

The nutrition soldiers may have been in the trenches forever, but every campaign needs a public face. That would be Bixby Daugherty, 42, who stunned many in the food world a year ago when he walked away from a six-figure job cooking French cuisine to tackle French Toast Sticks.

"We're going down a dangerous road," he said of how the food choices of decades -- and not just in schools, but in homes and restaurants -- have created a national health crisis of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. "I'm just here to pound on the issue."

His own epiphany came while looking over the lunch menus for his children, now 8 and 12. He offered to advise their school, but came away frustrated when they didn't leap, and told a few people so.

He's no longer interested in criticism. "I don't point fingers at anybody," he said, having learned the wisdom of the old adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Real Food Initiatives is a venture in partnership with his wife, Karen, who works at a preschool. Real food, he said, is what we used to eat, before processed and convenience and snack foods entered our pantries. You should hear the way he spits out the word "Doritos."

Seeking a generational shift

Now he's working with school districts from Fergus Falls to Owatonna, Hopkins to St. Paul -- and waiting for others to call. He also conducts what he likes to call "life skills workshops." Unreal food ends up in pantries, but not because kids are shopping for groceries. "It's their parents who are buying this stuff. We lead by example, and we've taken away a vital life skill. I drag [my kids] to the store with me at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning."

He has little patience with those who complain that healthful food takes too much time. "I put an apple in my kid's lunch. How tough is that? We have two kinds of fruit every morning, yogurt and toast with peanut butter, which is three, four minutes max to prep." Then he pauses (honey, vinegar), and adds: "I don't want to blame the parents."

After all, many parents of schoolkids ate far more processed foods than did previous generations. And ate differently, as well. "Our relationship to food is like it was to cigarettes 30, 40 years ago. You smoked anywhere. Now we eat anywhere."

Bixby Daugherty is driven by an article a few years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicting that if the next generation doesn't change its lifestyle, it will be the first in history to not outlive the previous generation. "What we used to call adult-onset diabetes is showing up in kids," he said. He went on at length in this vein, then stopped with a laugh. "I've reinvented myself. I'm in the health care industry now. It's bizarre."

The truth is that few of us eat enough fruits and vegetables. As Mechura, chairwoman of the state's food service directors, pointed out, "Obesity in general doesn't need to be pointed at one age group. It's adults. It's Americans."

Will the lessons learned at a more healthful school lunch come home with the kids? Or will the lessons of a healthful home finally feel supported by the schools? Right now, St. Paul schools are field-testing grain salads, seeing how students react to toasted wheatberries, a corn and barley mix or tabbouleh. Real Food Initiatives is one tool in the campaign. But food service directors know that they're in for the long haul.

A mean cup of cocoa

Bixby Daugherty says his mother, a pastry chef, is the best cook he knows. He also grew up eating healthy, although with a bit of the wild child's twist. "I had the huge keg parties, but with spring rolls and whole-wheat pasta."

He still puts his own twist on life. He doesn't yet own a cell phone, and the household just got high-speed Internet service in October. "I hope someone will come to me and say, "How can I help you?' and I'll say, 'You can build my website.''' He's been told he's off the grid, but questions the presumption that technology helps us communicate.

"Something gets lost in the translation," he said. "There's not enough eye-to-eye commucation these days." The Bixby Daughertys eat breakfast and dinner as a family, "which is a huge life decision."

And lest you think he's living in a dream world, he also works with the Wilder Foundation, Urban Ventures and Share Our Strength as a volunteer consultant, teaching the skills of eating healthfully and economically to poorer families. "You don't need money to help people -- you need time."

Two days a week, he teaches basic cooking skills at the Art Institutes International culinary program in downtown Minneapolis. "I'm a Virgo, which means I'm hard-wired. I'll always be Chef Seth."

He also likes to fish as many days as he can on a small lake near their home in Eden Prairie. After each visit, he logs the lake's conditions and the fish he catches.

And just when you start to think he's a little too virtuous, he shares his recipe for cocoa: heated half-and-half with chocolate chips stirred in until they melt. "But in moderation."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185