By Jim Tortolano
School cafeteria food. What’s your first reaction?
If your first thought is “yuck,” maybe you’d better think twice, at least as far as the Westminster School District is concerned. The WSD, a K-8 district serving most of Westminster, Midway City and portions of Garden Grove and Huntington Beach, just held its first School Menu Food Tasting Event, called “Voice Your Choice.”
On Wednesday, about 400 students from Finley Elementary and Johnson Middle schools taste-tested food from over a dozen vendors and voted for what they liked and what they didn’t.
“Seventy-two percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals,” said Tony Wold, assistant superintendent for business services of the WSD. “We want to make sure that all of them take advantage of that.”
To meet that goal, the district needs to provide meals that are both nutritious and tasty. How do you get kids to chow down on school lunches? Ask them what they want.
“As a food services director, I get to go out to food fairs put on by vendors and get to taste what they’re offering,” said Stephanie Tovar, child nutrition and food service program director for the WSD. “So it occurred to me to offer that same opportunity to some of our students.”
In a world in which there’s a McDonald’s or Del Taco on every street corner, how do you appeal to the palate of a bunch of 8- and 12-year-olds, especially when healthy eating – including concerns about levels of sugar and sodium are considered key – is mandated by federal regulations?
“Our vendors have really been great partners for us,” she said, going on to note that food service providers have re-formulated their products to meet the rules and the flavor.
“At first we had some issues,” she allowed. “We did have some taste issues,” but after some reworking, “the taste has improved greatly.” While Wednesday’s event was the first large-scale version, “we’ve always taste-tested with a small group of students.”
The goal? To not put something on the menu that kids just won’t eat.
Students from both schools were ushered into the gymnasium at Johnson – the two schools are on adjoining lots on Edwards Street, north of Westminster Boulevard – and made the rounds of the food tables. They sampled about 60 products including fruit, dairy, meat, rice and others and voted: a green sticker meant, “yes” (like it, put it on the menu) and a red sticker meant “no” (leave it off). The statistics will be tabulated and a report ready in about two weeks. “The top vote-getters will be placed on the menu,” said Tovar.
As the students made their trek from one table to another, biting into the samples and voting with their stickers, Tovar commented “It’s going great. The students are loving it. They appreciate being involved in the choice. We’ve been getting a lot of positive reactions to the food. A lot of smiles.”