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Schools try taste testing 2.0

Photograph: Chartwells K12

Turkey and cucumber are two ingredients foodservice director Vince Scimone would never have thought to put together. Student judges at Grossmont Union High School District in La Mesa, Calif., however, believe they are a winning combination.

The students selected the combo, which was paired with a spicy Thousand Island dressing and sandwiched between a jalapeno bagel, as the winner of the district’s first Shark Tank competition. The now-annual event pits schools across the district against one another to come up with creative menu items. The new items are judged by students.

“The event was designed to get students and staff engaged in creating new dishes that our students would love,” says Scimone, the district’s director of child nutrition. “Our participation has gone up over 100 meals per day at each school. We are getting a ton of positive feedback from all students.”

Friendly competition

Grossmont Union switched to this new method of taste testing after traditional taste tests weren’t providing credible student feedback.

“When [students] get it for free and they taste it, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s OK, it’s good.’ But then when they have to purchase it or choose it as one of their options for their lunch, it’s just not what they’re looking for,” Scimone says. 

Scimone first heard of a variation on the Shark Tank idea in a focus group and reworked it for the district.

“My staff was so proud of the event. We connected with the students in a way we had never been able to before.” —Vincent Simone

“What I did was I gave my staff an ingredient and I said, ‘OK, we’re going to build recipes with this one ingredient, and then we’re going to present it with students judging,’” he says.

Last year, the ingredient was a type of spicy Thousand Island sauce that Scimone found at a trade show. Staff at each participating school created their own menu items using the sauce and served them for two months leading up to the event. Scimone made sure that students did not know that the items were going to be judged.

“I do not want to sway any of the voters or give any school an edge,” he says.

The best-selling menu items from each school went on to be judged by a panel of students. Scimone says he tries to get an even balance between those who pay for lunch and those who receive free and reduce-priced meals. He also tries to get at least one student who typically doesn’t eat school meals at all.

On the day of the event, each team had to come up with its own marketing plan to present to the student judges, who then tasted and rated each of the items. Along with the turkey and cucumber bagel sandwich, the district has also incorporated the second- and third-place dishes into the districtwide menu. Those dishes are a Calienta Carnitas Bowl (shredded pork and bean salsa topped with the sauce) and Boom Chicken (USDA raw cut chicken that is cooked in a glaze made with the sauce).

Schools throughout the district are looking forward to creating and presenting the next round of new menu items this year, Scimone says. 

“My staff was so proud of the event,” Scimone says. “We connected with the students in a way we had never been able to before.”

Voicing their choice

Giving students control beyond choosing a single dish was the idea behind Chartwells K12’s student choice program, which is now operating at 150 Chartwells-affiliated schools across the country.

“When you look at a typical student today, most of the districts that we serve, they are scheduled from morning until night,” says Chartwells K12 CEO Belinda Oakley. “They’re on the receiving end of instruction from parents to teachers to coaches, and we kind of recognized the opportunity to give them one period of the day where they could be driving the choice.”

Throughout the year, students participate in taste testings to vote on the menus of different concepts, such as Bok Choy, an Asian concept inspired by celebrity chef Jet Tila, and Roost, a chicken concept. Both have been very popular with students, Oakley says.

“The cafeteria should be a place the students should want to be, not a place that they have to be. And for us that starts with [having] a choice in the menu.” —Belinda Oakley

Chefs and registered dietitians are present at each of the tastings to provide students with more information on each dish and its ingredients. The winning concepts are introduced in the cafeteria the following week. 

“It was important to us that they didn’t have to choose just one dish, they really get to determine the whole menu,” Oakley says. “Whenever we create concepts that allow for customization, we see more student engagement and greater participation.” 

Student ambassadors are also present at each tasting and are responsible for helping spread the word to their peers about voting. They also help chefs decide what concepts should be created for students to try next. Oakley hopes that the program will continue to evolve and encourage students to voice their opinion on what’s happening with their school’s foodservice.

“The cafeteria should be a place the students should want to be, not a place that they have to be. And for us, that starts with [having] a choice in the menu,” she says.

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