Third-Graders in Manchester Turn School Lunch From Gross to Great

Mar 21, 2016

Students at Parkey Varney Elementary School in Manchester took matters into their own hands when they found themselves unimpressed with offerings at the school cafeteria.
Credit Ted Siefer / NHPR

  

There’s been a lot of debate recently around federally-mandated nutrition standards for school lunches. The rules aim to bring healthier food into school cafeterias. But many students, and some administrators, say, they have resulted in meals that are — for lack of a better word — gross.

But at one Manchester elementary school, the kids have taken matters into their own hands. 

The kids at Parker Varney school are excited as they file into the cafeteria. Or, rather, that's the  “Fresh Picks Cafe.”

Earlier this year, the school’s kitchen was rebranded and overhauled by a food services company —Cafe Services. Now, kitchen staff can serve up new items on site and use as much fresh food as possible instead of the same old tired cafeteria fare.

The response to the changes have been both encouraging — and in some ways startling.

“On, say, chicken nugget day ... I do as many salads as I do chicken nuggets," says Cheryl Musser, who heads Cafe Services’ operation at Parker Varney. "That surprises me. These kids haven't had that fresh healthy choice and they love it."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that all of this was set in motion by a bunch of 3rd graders. As part of a Parker Varney class project last year aimed at improving the school meal program, the kids did research, conducted surveys and presented their findings at City Hall. City officials were so impressed, they hired a firm to set up a kind of test kitchen at the school.

Sam Audet, a third grade teacher who led the project, says the students then presented their research to Cafe Services. 

“So then we immediately started seeing things they had wanted throughout the district on their menus — hot dogs, mac and cheese, soup."

Turkey dogs, that is. It was up to Cafe Services to come up with healthy versions of these favorites. 

The food complies with the standards of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Free Act. Those standards — which have been a priority for First Lady Michelle Obama — have generated pushback in some quarters. Students complain they’ve resulted in unpalatable food, while food service directors say the new standards have hurt their revenues.

Salem and Londonderry recently pulled their high schools out of the federally-subsidized school meal program, so they could be free to serve meals more to students’ liking.

In Manchester, Mayor Ted Gatsas had often lamented seeing kids toss their meals in the trash.

"I think we made the right decision," Gatsas says. "The kids are eating more broccoli and chick peas than you can imagine … I put the kids on mission to send a letter to the school board to ask that we get the rest of the schools to participate in the same program."

Cafe Services fitted up the Parker Varney kitchen on its own dime; it now gets the federal reimbursements for the meals it serves at the school.

Having a fuller kitchen on site allows Cafe Services to serve more fresh food and minimizes the need to store items for extended periods of time. Before the kitchen was just used to warm up large quantities of pre-made food from a central facility.

"The food sometime was soggy, so the kids didn't want food like that. They wanted hot food that could be served right away," says Misha Philippe, one of the leaders of the project.

The 9-year-old says the experience has changed her eating habits beyond school: “When I'm eating something, I think, ‘This is healthy and this is not healthy.’ So I try to eat the healthy stuff more often, and the less healthy stuff sometimes, once in a while."

For the latest phase of the school project, 3rd-graders surveyed their peers about how they like the new fare. The results are encouraging: the kids prefer the new menu to the old stuff by about a 25-to-1 margin.