OCPS lets students help choose lunch options

The annual Student Food Show put kids in charge, giving them free samples of potential future lunch items.

The annual Student Food Show put kids in charge, giving them free samples of potential future lunch items.

Allison Olcsvay

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Orange County Public Schools would prefer for phrases like, “I’d rather bring my own lunch, it’s healthier,” disappear from students’ vocabularies.

In order to get direct input from students, OCPS Food Services hosted its fifth annual Student Food Show Jan. 22 and invited 400 students from area elementary, middle and high schools to taste test potential new menu items.

The lucky tasters sampled more than 100 new products from 40 vendors, some with familiar names such as Jennie-O Turkey, Tyson Chicken, and Yoplait Yogurt.

“The only thing we asked vendors, aside from complying with state school food nutrition standards, was that they bring something new for kids to try,” said Lora Gilbert, senior director of OCPS Food and Nutrition Services.

Many students including Hilton Geartner, 17, of Winter Park High School, enjoyed the pulled pork with whole-wheat garlic toast from J.T.M. Food Group.

“Hopefully stuff like this will make it on the menu,” he said.

With an 86 percent approval rating, it stands a good chance.

Student representatives roamed the tasting area, sampling anything they liked and voted for their top choices via iPads located at each station.

The results will be tabulated and those scoring 70 percent or higher in popularity will be taken into further consideration by the county before final decisions on what to add to the menu are made.

Alina Rivera of Boone High School said she was happy to be part of shaping her future lunch menu.

“It feels good that we have a choice considering that we are the ones who are eating the food,” she said.

Approval ratings often showed a preference among students wanting more intense and sophisticated flavors added to their lunch choices.

“I really liked the Asian noodle sauce,” said Lucas Mullen, a fourth grader at Audubon Park Elementary. Others students agreed, giving it an 88 percent approval rating.

Lucas was also a fan of a spicy nacho-like dish featuring lentils, as were many of the kids, often returning for seconds.

“Elevation of flavor is going up,” said Schwan Food Company representative Sylvia Matzke-Hill. “Kids are exposed to more flavors early on and they are asking for this to be represented in their school lunches. Asian and Pan-Latino flavors have been especially popular.”

That fact was reflected in the food samples Schwan Food Company brought, including Orange Chicken and General Tsao chicken.

“I think this is so cool,” said Matzke-Hill. “They know what they like and they give great feedback. Kids have higher expectations these days.”

Another trend at the show was food packaged with portability in mind, something that students seemed to appreciate.

“It’s more convenient to eat or stash in your backpack for later,” said Geartner. “There’s just not enough time to eat, so if we can take it with us for later, that’s great,” he said.

Portable foods like cheese cubes, cereal bars, pita chips and yogurt all scored above 90 percent with the tasters. In fact, nearly half of the items scoring 90 percent or better were portable foods.

Allison Barkdull, an eighth grader at Glenridge Middle School, was hoping to find more choices for students with food allergies, like her sister who has a wheat allergy and needs gluten-free options.

“I don’t have the allergy myself, but I tend to avoid gluten around the house for my sister, so now I look for those options elsewhere as well,” she said.

“I’d definitely like to see more vegetables and fresh ingredients on the menu. Organic food would be great.”

Barkdull may not have to wait long. A popular choice with the tasters — 82 percent approved — was a gluten-free Peruvian chicken dish from Tyson that had the magic combination of intense flavor and healthy protein that kids seemed to gravitate toward.

Perhaps the most popular items with both kids and adults were the V8 smoothies presented by Island Oasis. Eighty-three percent of the tasters gave the smoothies an “awesome” rating, the top score available.

“Something cold, when it’s hot outside is really nice,” said Boone High School sophomore Jimmy Robbins. “As athletes, my friends and I want healthy snacks. We don’t want to eat junk, then feel bad at practice.”

“Kids will enjoy the smoothie option,” said Valerie Welch of OCPS Food Services. “And, they are getting a serving of veggies.”

Shhh… We won’t tell if you don’t.