ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And France recently reported that childhood obesity rates are leveling off after rising for two decades. It's the first European country to show that kind of a shift. The French findings come from two studies of school-age children. And the report suggests that healthier school lunch programs and a ban on vending machines in schools could be paying off. Eleanor Beardsley visited one French high school - a public school - with a dedicated professional chef.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Dominique Valadier starts his day at 5:30 a.m., just as the fish market opens in the southern French provincial town of Salon de Provence. Today, Valadier picks up 20 pounds of fresh, live mussels before heading off to the l'Emperi high school, where he is the cook.

After their morning greeting and a few laughs, Valadier and his staff of four get going on the day's meal for about 800 students. On the menu today: mussels in cream sauce over rice with leeks, and stuffed turkey thighs accompanied by a squash au gratin casserole. Nothing here is frozen or pre-prepared, says Valadier, hoisting a sack of the algae-covered mussels.

Mr. DOMINIQUE VALADIER (Chef): (Through translator) Voila. This sticker here shows where these mussels came from and when they were harvested. This guarantees their freshness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEARDSLEY: Eyes twinkling and knives flashing, Valadier opens up the plump turkey thighs, cutting out the bones. He says you should be able to hear good cooking.

The flattened turkey filets are wrapped around a stuffing of ground-up parsley, garlic, cheese and smoked pork shoulder. The loaves are then tied with twine and baked for three hours at low temperatures to keep in the juices and flavor. When sliced, they will serve hundreds of students, 10 times the number that could have been fed on the plain turkey thighs. Preparation and proximity are the keys to high-quality meals at lower prices, says Valadier.

Mr. VALADIER: (Through translator) We try to get our base products - meat, fish, vegetables - within a 30-mile radius because there are fewer intermediaries, and we can negotiate price and quality with the producers. These turkeys were raised and slaughtered just near here. If I have a problem, I'll ask the producer to come see me, and I can guarantee you things will be a lot better the next time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEARDSLEY: All around the school kitchen, pots and pans are cooking and simmering away. Gallons of bechamel sauce bubble for the squash casserole. A vat of chickpeas boils for homemade hummus. It's hard to believe this is a school cafeteria and not a three-star restaurant.

Perhaps what's most impressive about Valadier's meals is that they cost students only $3 a day, less than the typical fast-food fare served at many French high schools.

Another way Valadier saves money is by getting maximum use out of every ingredient. He never throws anything away. In one corner of the kitchen, he is boiling down the fish heads, flesh and bones from yesterday's salmon to make a tasty bouillon for today's mussels.

Mr. VALADIER: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEARDSLEY: As lunch hour begins and the students file in, Valadier joyfully serves them while answering questions about the meal. He reaches across the counter with a forkful of the squash au gratin to give 17-year-old Valentine Biemence a taste. Biemence says she and her friends have all but quit eating lunch at McDonald's and have discovered a lot of new dishes.

Ms. VALENTINE BIEMENCE (Student): It's all the time different food and it's very, very good. People are really happy, because it's really hard now to eat well and cheap.

BEARDSLEY: Valadier left the world of glamorous Riviera restaurants for something more meaningful. He's clearly found his calling here.

Danielle Viou teaches drama and English at the high school.

Ms. DANIELLE VIOU (Teacher): We are very, very lucky because it's a real project. It's not just doing the cooking; it's a whole concept of educating and doing something good and taking time and enjoying it. And it's artistic at the same time.

BEARDSLEY: Valadier says investing in the students' well-being is also an act of citizenship. If young people learn to eat well early on, he says, it will cost the country's health-care system a lot less in the future.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Salon-de-Provence.

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