"Boy, this cheese sure is cheesy," says Stephanie Riggs, a cute blond with pizza cheese oozing from the sides of her mouth. "Needs some oomph," adds George Williams, jotting down his comment on the sheet in front on him. "Not as good as it looks," observes Stacy Farrar after a first bite.
This is a test. A taste test. And although as Riggs put it, "it may be the easiest test I've taken in school," this group of teen-age connoisseurs gathered around a cafeteria table in Rockville's Woodward High School have a weighty responsibility. These students are the judges of whether pizza turnovers, chicken hoagies and fish 'n' cheese sandwiches will become new menu items on the school lunch program of the Montgomery County school system.
The items will be retested in other schools, and with other age groups, but if they bomb in the first heat, they may not have another chance. The verdict: the chicken hoagie and pizza turnovers tie for favorites -- 63 percent of the students rate them both as "excellent." The fish 'n' cheese: only 37 percent of the students give it an "excellent" rating.
This week is National School Lunch Week; its purpose to create and stimulate participation in the school lunch program. Over 20 million students nationwide will be eating the same meal today -- not pizza or chicken hoagies -- but spaghetti and meat sauce. The fruit choices may be apples on the East Coast and oranges on the West, and the spaghetti sauce may be spicier in one school than another, but this may be the nation's largest banquet since the Redcoats all ate crow in 1783.
Around the country as well, school taste tests -- although certainly not new -- are a growing trend. At a time when the school lunch is becoming analagous to the restaurant lunch, and the student is becoming as much of a customer to be wooed as the midday diner, taste tests are being looked at as a means to find out what the consumer wants.
"If you don't listen to your customers," said Julius Jacobs, director of the District's food service program, "you aren't gonna have them."
The items tested recently in two area taste tests -- chicken chunks, milkshakes, pizza, hamburgers, breaded fish sandwiches, Mexican "Crispitos" -- also highlight a culinary dichotomy in today's school lunch program. At the same time that items such as yogurt and salad bars are replacing gloppy casserole dishes and syrupy canned products behind lunch counters, facsimiles of popular fast food products are cropping up as well.
("This smells just like a Chicken McNugget," said Riggs excitedly at the Woodward taste test, when pieces of breaded chicken were served. "We're being beaten by McDonald's, but we won't surrender," said Jacobs.)
"My sense of school lunch these days is that it's going in two separate directions," said Lynn Parker, nutritionist for the Food Research Action Center (FRAC). The trend, said Parker, is not unlike the "boat we're in in society. On the one hand we're drinking more soda, on the other we're eating more fruit."
But what Parker and the American School Food Service Association. acknowledge is that today's food service directors are caught in a bind, a balancing act in which they must juggle economic constraints, parental pressures and the powerful merchandising effects of fast-food restaurants with the need to provide a quick, nutritious lunch that students will eat.
At Woodward High School, cafeteria manager Pat Sappe said she sells 160 servings of french fries and onion rings a day versus six individual cartons a day of yogurt and 35 helpings from the salad bar. And on a questionnaire at a recent taste party in Fairfax County, when asked how the school lunch program could be improved, among the students' suggestions were "candy machines," "soda machines" and "more french fries."
In a classroom at Rocky Run Intermediate School in Chantilly, Va., the cafeteria staff busily brings out one taste item after another to the group of 35 "taste party" participants, placing a sample on each student's plate. There are seven items to be tested in all, and the plates soon become crowded with food. "I don't want you to overeat or you'll fall asleep in your next class," warns Dorothy VanEgmond-Pannell, director of Fairfax County food services. "We already do," whispers eighth-grader Tonyia Stogner to her friends beside her.
"The trouble with your age group is getting you to eat a variety of foods," explains VanEgmond-Pannell, as the group of 12- and 13-year-olds begins intently ("no help from your neighbors") filling in the blanks of the taste party evaluation sheet.
A few of the students echo Pannell's comment. "I don't usually eat lunch, just a pretzel or a cookie," says Theresa Staropoli, as the french bread pizzas are passed out. "I usually buy ice cream for lunch," says Gail Skovronksy, in between filling out her evaluation sheet.
"Please mark with an X the rating which best describes your opinion of the products tested." Item: Milkshake. Good, fair, poor. "Would you like this item on future school menus?" Yes. No.
An important dimension of the taste test is not only the information it provides to the school system, but what the results tell the manufacturers of the products. It's market research. "Manufacturers look at the results very keenly," says Randy Habeck of Habeck-Zaitz, a local food service brokerage firm that provides products to school systems.
At today's tasting, manufacturers and distributors from each of the companies that provided free samples are seated against the wall in the classroom. Just as oenophiles don't divulge the wines they are tasting, the manufacturers and names of the products they brought are introduced only after the tasting is over, for fear the students may be influenced by a popular brand name.
The after-eating applause is loudest when the distributor of Crispitos, a Mexican item made with a flour tortilla and filled with chili made with chicken, is introduced. Although companies may not use survey results on advertisements, says Pannell, they can -- and do use them verbally; to interest a new client or make a sale, for example.
Companies also use the taste-test results to make changes or adaptions in product formulations. In the Rocky Run taste test, the chicken chunks did not rate well, a factor VanEgmond-Pannell attributed to "too highly seasoned." Irwyn Mondschien from Capitol Food Sales, the distributor that provided the product (as well as the successfully-rated Crispitos) said he has heard similiar complaints from around the country, and that the manufacturer plans on reformulating to cut down on the spiciness.
Stuffed shells, an Italian dish of pasta shells stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta and white cheddar did not fare well at the taste party; VanEgmond-Pannell said it was probably due to the students' unfamiliarity with the filling ingredients.
Habeck of Habeck-Zaitz, the food broker for the Casa Maid product, said the company probably won't reformulate ("at what point do you just become cheddar cheese wrapped in pasta?") but that it may try the same filling in a ravioli square, to see if, in fact, the low acceptance rate had to do with the filling or the unfamiliar shell shape.
Food service directors must screen products from the plethora of products vendors try to sell them ("we may do preliminary testing on 50 kinds of chicken chunks," said Joyce Zapp, supervisor of food services for the Montgomery County school system) and then make a decision of which will go over well in a taste test. They, too, must know their market.
They know, for instance, that students don't like mixtures of unknown foods, that burritos will go over well if there is a Mexican fast food restaurant nearby the school, and that chicken hot dogs were unsuccessful until now because "we had to wait until Mom was buying them," said VanEgmond-Pannell. Akin to introducing new products into the commmercial marketplace, though, sometimes there are surprises.
VanEgmond-Pannell was surprised that the Crispito did so well at Rocky Run. Students usually don't like white-colored shells, she said, and they usually go for fried foods. The Crispito is not fried.
And similiar to commercial test marketing, foods that are popular under test circumstances sometimes don't work once they hit the marketplace. Zapp said students rated nachos and cheese quite highly in a taste test, but they didn't sell well once they were put into a school. They weren't "as big a craze as we thought," said Zapp.
Then there are foods that food service directors wish would go over well in taste tests, but don't. Zapp said that Montgomery County taste tested a "marvelous" baked fish with no breading, but students rejected it. And the county also taste tested a beef patty with a very low fat content that was likewise unacceptable.
Food service directors have learned to recognize that what students say they want to eat and what they eat may be two different stories. "We need some new vegetables. All the girls are watching their weight. We should have more diet food," suggests Jodi Kolker at the end of the Woodward High taste test. But what does Kolker eat for lunch? Peanuts and a drink.
It's back to the food service director's bind -- providing the fast food generation with foods they will eat. ("It isn't nutrition until you swallow it," says Monya H. Geller, chairperson of the Nutrition Standards/Nutrition Education Committee of the American Food School Service Association). The re-education process, then, says Geller and Parker of FRAC, needs to start with teaching nutrition in the classroom.
Overall, said George Bralay, Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs at the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, "it's a battle."