Move over, mystery meat. There’s a new school menu in town.
Chicago Public Schools is taste testing incoming dishes with students, parents and community members around the city in an effort to better cater to the taste buds of students. The school district is also offering additional dishes — including fruit smoothies, chilaquiles and BBQ tofu — that could be served in this school year’s lunch line.
The district plans to hold 40 separate taste tests this summer.
On the menu Wednesday at the Heart of Chicago neighborhood’s Whittier Elementary: an egg and potato breakfast taco, a veggie pasta salad topped with a light dressing, and a creamy chocolate-chickpea dip.
“I think I loved it,” said Mason, 6, who got down from a long, blue lunch table to tell the Tribune about the food he tried. The chocolate-chickpea dip took the top prize, the pint-size taste tester added.
Across the cafeteria, Santiago wasn’t as impressed. While the dip and the breakfast taco tasted good, he said, the veggie pasta salad didn’t hit the mark. And no, it wasn’t because he doesn’t like vegetables.
“It was spicy and I don’t like pasta,” the 8-year-old said.
The friend to his left agreed. “I didn’t like the flavor, it was slimy and cold,” Aidan, 8, said.
The students, joined by a handful of community members and parents who also probed the provisions, filled in surveys to indicate how much they liked each item and what they thought about it.
The ballots confirmed what was already clear: The kids loved the chocolate-chickpea dip and liked the breakfast tacos. But the veggie pasta salad wasn’t so popular. That feedback allows the companies that provide CPS food to better cater to the child palate, said Allison Polke, director of health and wellness for Open Kitchens, a Chicago company that serves meals to CPS students.
“We work with our chef and he’s able to adjust recipes really quickly,” Polke said.
When CPS CEO Pedro Martinez asked students what he could improve on, the number one answer he heard was “food,” he told the Tribune.
“They want more selection. They didn’t like some of the food items,” Martinez said.
Schools have students for eight or nine hours a day and often serve breakfast, lunch and snacks, he pointed out. He wants kids to like their food.
“If you grow up in Chicago, I don’t care what neighborhood, you know what good food tastes like, you just do,” he said. “If our children are not eating and it’s not nutritious foods, they’re not going to be able to learn.”
Jason Mojica, CPS’s executive director for nutrition support services, doesn’t remember the grub being so high quality in the schools of his youth.
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“I wish I had some of this stuff growing up,” he said.
The food the school system serves to around 300,000 kids daily is already healthy and locally sourced, he said. But now it might be more delicious.
“We wanted to make a concerted effort to really engage the students in making the decisions as to what goes on the menu, versus the adults,” Mojica said.
Maya Johnson came by to try the food because her second grader son is a picky eater and sometimes won’t eat at school. Her face lit up as the chocolate-chickpea dip hit her mouth. She told the CPS administrators the kids will love it.
“If they like Nutella, and what kid doesn’t. They won’t know,” the 41-year-old North Lawndale mom said. “It’s a little sticky, but they won’t care.”
She wants to know that she can rely on CPS on days when there isn’t much time to prep lunch for her son.
“When I’m leaving him somewhere else, my expectation is that they’ll feed him and he’ll be satisfied to get through the day,” Johnson said.