A former top chef helping drive free healthy lunches to schools all over Horowhenua knows a thing or two about nutrition and healthy eating.
Two years ago Samuel North weighed 180kg.
"I was a big boy. I loved my food," he said.
"I was an executive chef, but I wasn't focussing on what I was eating. I was a prime example of what can happen when you eat rubbish."
Through healthy eating and exercise, he was now a relatively slim 111kg. He had trimmed down so much, he was forced to throw out all his old clothes and buy new ones.
"It was nice to go to the menswear store and order from the XL line," he said.
North said he just started exercising three or four times a week, either swimming or at the gym - or both - and started eating nutritious food instead of takeaways.
"It was a challenge. It's not easy. But it is life-changing. I only need to book one seat on an aeroplane now," he said.
The 30-year-old said the weight loss had made a massive difference to his life. He had more energy, could concentrate better and had an overall increased feeling of wellbeing.
"You feel better. You wake up feeling great. I love teaching people. Obesity is a real issue.
"I wouldn't want anyone to get to where I was."
His weight loss journey made him passionate about the Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches programme that started at the beginning of the year.
North was operations manager for Lunch By Libelle, a company preparing 3600 meals each day for 14 schools in Horowhenua.
Libelle had a staff of 22 in the Levin kitchen. It had four vans on the road that delivered meals to schools from Ōtaki to Foxton each day.
North was in daily contact with the schools, getting feedback on the popularity of the lunches, portion sizes, school roll updates and dietary requirement updates, and discussing regularly how to minimise waste.
"As the programme is still in its infancy we communicate that the uptake will be less in the beginning with a steady increase after foods become more familiar," he said.
North said Libelle's food philosophy kept with the Ministry of Education's "Pathway to Nutrition", where menus and recipes provide a gradual increase in vegetables as the school progresses through the term.
He said Libelle was part of the pilot of the programme last year in Rotorua and "learned a great deal about what works and what doesn't work, and are starting to pick up trends".
"That being said, all schools have different feedback on the menu. Not one school is the same."
Libelle ran a rotating four-week menu cycle (20 meals) through each term. The four weeks allowed Libelle to make changes when meals fell flat.
So, what dishes work best, and what dishes flop?
"With any meal plan, there will inevitably be meals that are not popular. These tend to typically be salad days," he said
"At the moment, popular items are hot meals: pasta and meatballs, lasagne, chicken parmigiana and fried rice. One of the meals that did not quite hit the mark was falafel wraps – we took that off straight away."
"If there are any lunches left over, most schools keep them for after-school study groups or sports trainings," he said.
Most of the scraps went to local pig farmers or worm farms.
"We provide buckets for students to put their leftovers in, this is usually things like fruit cores, crusts."
Libelle used compostable containers and utensils, and a recyclable foil container for hot meals. Where possible, food was sourced from local producers, he said.
The free food programme is getting a mid-year pass mark from Horowhenua secondary school principals with efforts to reduce waste and leftovers ongoing.
According to those in charge, any leftover crusts were a small price to pay if it meant reducing inequality and having students attend class on a full stomach.
Meals were being delivered earlier now than when they first began, as teachers had noticed students were concentrating better.
Horowhenua College principal Grant Congdon said any waste was minimal and the Lunch in Schools programme was achieving its goal.
"The change it has made is one of the most significant I have seen in the way schools are run, in improving inequity," he said.
"It has been hugely successful."
Congdon said they worked closely with Lunch By Libelle and gave regular feedback.
The biggest challenge was providing food that will be eaten that also fell within Ministry of Health nutritional guidelines.
"When they get it right, all the meals go. There is huge uptake when the menu is something really agreeable," he said.
"That's the challenge: healthy and nutritious meals that are agreeable."
Congdon said initially it was a learning curve as some meals were far more popular than others.
"When the balance is right, there is very little leftover," he said.
Waiopehu College acting principal Guy Reichenbach said the school used the funding internally.
Having meals made onsite meant easy communication with the kitchen on predicted meal numbers, such as when fewer meals were needed because students were away on sports exchanges.
Any leftovers were put out for students involved in afterschool activities, who might still be hungry, and there were fruit grazing stations throughout the school.
"There is very little left. Everyone knows they can go to the grazing fridges after practice, for example," he said.
He said there was always going to be waste, like crusts and apple cores, but it was minimal and was taken away at the end of each day by members of staff that had pigs.
Students learning about sustainability were also holding trials using composting sites and containers.
"The students themselves are looking at waste management. They are driving any improvements," he said.
"It really is incredible."
The menu had changed during the course of the year, while still working within the provided nutritional guidelines, as it quickly became apparent what meals were popular.
Some students had never eaten foods before that were proving less popular, such as feta cheese, but other dishes were gobbled up.
The school had a manager experienced in the food industry so the programme operated much the same as a restaurant with an organised menu, serving 700 students each day, and they were able to source ingredients locally.
Reichenbach said having the food made on site meant no transport costs getting the food to the school, either.
Manawatū College principal Matthew Fraser said the biggest challenge was having menus with broad appeal. Often the more exotic foods were less likely to be completely eaten.
"On the days the students love the food there is not very much waste," he said.
"Macaroni cheese is always good, they quite like sushi bowls, wraps are good, but if you try and squeeze a few chick peas in there, it's like 'what the heck is this?'"
The school also had lunches supplied by Libelle. Any untouched dishes were given to community groups, and leftovers went to pig farmers.
Fraser said overall the lunches had made a big difference and was keen to see it continue.
"It's been a great thing," he said.
"We do have challenges. Families are struggling to put food on the table, and that's right across the district.
"It's about equity and removing barriers to education."
There were now 790 schools in the Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches programme.
That will expand to 964 schools and kura by the end of the year - more than 25 per cent of school students.