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Young Food Critics Offer Schools Insider Help

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Choosing the right chicken tender or proper pizza is serious business.

In many school systems, food service officials hold monthly "tasting parties" to find cafeteria fare that appeals to pint-size connoisseurs.

At a tasting event at Wolftrap Elementary in Vienna, about 40 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders had an opportunity to be food critics. They took the job seriously.

"It's a lot of responsibility because we're picking for kids all over," James Stephens, 10, said. James cut short a family trip to be back in time for the tasting event.

For about an hour, the tasters sampled four kinds of pizza, two kinds of cheese sticks and three types of Italian ice, all vying for spots on students' cardboard lunch trays. All items are engineered to meet the school system's nutritional standards and contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and 10 percent of calories from saturated fat on average over the week. Even the ices contained 100 percent fruit juice. A thumbs up could mean a multimillion-dollar contract. A thumbs down could send a vendor packing.

This is invaluable market research for a system that feeds 140,000 customers a day. Fairfax County spends about 38 percent of its $74 million budget on food. A wrong decision and officials could be stuck with a hefty bill and a pile of uneaten food. That was the case with the low-fat chocolate chip cookie they piloted a few years ago without input from student tasters.

Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services for the Fairfax school system, said it's important to ask students what they think because they often evaluate products using standards only their peers appreciate.

Allison Brandmark, a sixth-grader, rated the pizza on its "crust ratio." Translated: "Square slices of pizza are no good because with the inner pieces, you end up getting tomato sauce on your fingers because there's no crust to grab on to. It's a mess," she said.

There's the sticky-and-salty criteria. Because younger students tend to eat more finger food, the tasters said, what's left on the fingers after sampling, say, a cheese-stuffed breadstick really makes a difference to them.

For fifth-grader Daniel Yaqub, there is the braces factor. If the pizza crust is too soft, it will get wedged between the wires, Daniel said. Too hard, and it might break the metal pieces in the mouth.

Daniel broke off a piece of pizza, eyeballed it and placed it in his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, then scribbled a few thoughts on his rating sheet. "Cheese Pizza B" was a bust, but under "Cheese Pizza A," he wrote perhaps the ultimate compliment: "It could be good for people with braces."

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