Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tasters' Choice

In what seems to be another example of a positive trend, students in one Arizona school district are being encouraged to sample vendors' proposed food items before being purchased by the district:
As she taste-tested burritos and then hamburger patties, 12-year-old Olivia Cohn made a few mental notes.

"This has given me some ideas," said Cohn, a sixth-grader at Basha Elementary School who enjoys cooking for her family and wants to be a TV-show chef some day.

"I thought it would be interesting to do this."

The occasion was the seventh annual Chandler Unified School District Food Fair, an invitation-only affair at the district's central kitchen near Frye and Dobson roads.

Students taste-tested cheese and pepperoni pizza, bean-and-cheese burritos, beef patties and chicken nuggets, recording their impressions of presentation and flavor on a survey sheet.

Although those items remain cafeteria staples, food vendors are constantly updating their recipes and trying to improve their offerings. The kids' ratings could be used by the district in determining what will be offered in the lunch line next year.

"You get to try new stuff, and it might end up at your school," said Taylor Morris, 10, a fifth-grader at Andersen Elementary. "It's pretty cool. It's fun."

Last week, about two dozen vendors served samples of their dishes to almost 300 students and parents who had responded to 1,000 invitations sent randomly by the district. The theme, "Springing Into Wellness and Nutrition," played off the new nutritional guidelines for school food and beverages for 2006-07.

"We told (the vendors), 'Don't bring anything we won't be able to sell,' " said Rich Kalesz, the kitchen's production supervisor.

Bob Richmond, a representative of Bake Crafters Food Company, a wholesale bakery that sells a line of whole-wheat products only to schools, said he does more than 130 of these events a year.

"There has been a big push in the last three years about nutrition (in schools)," Richmond said. "The companies that are ahead of the curve are the ones that will succeed."

However, marketing healthful food to schoolchildren can be tricky, according to Debbie Fick of cookiemaker Otis Spunkmeyer, which has introduced a line of "Delicious Essentials" muffins, low in fat and sugar.

"Whatever you do," Fick said, "don't put anything on your packaging that says 'healthy' or 'low fat.' It will discourage them from buying."

Parents seemed to be drawn to the Barilla pasta display of executive chef Bruno Wehrer, who served what he called "macaroni and cheese for the grownups" to rave reviews.

Wehrer said his goal is to get schools to see that mass production needn't sacrifice flavor.

"The person in the (school) kitchen doesn't always know what can be done," he said.
No matter what items are offered, all foods served to students in public schools must meet nutritional guidelines that are set in Washington.

As for kids and parents being able to sample vendors' items before they are purchased for the district's cafeteria, I think that it is a great idea. It's only common-sense to survey the opinions of the kids who'll actually be eating what is served.

Good call.
See our latest education-related entries right here.