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Kids get the chance to grade school lunch

Chef Tony Maws watches as Carmen Morales makes pasta. Chef Tony Maws watches as Carmen Morales makes pasta. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2010

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It’s a simple but startling concept: Bring the kids into the school lunch conversation. They will tell you what they really think.

At the Museum of Science recently, a “What’s for Lunch?’’ program, part of the museum’s larger “Let’s Talk About Food’’ initiative, included 300 high school students from Boston and nearby communities, a forum, a cooking demonstration by Tony Maws of Craigie on Main, and hands-on food exhibits.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino began with remarks about his personal interest in school lunches. One of his grandsons, who attends a Boston public school, had complained to him that his lunch tasted like cardboard. Menino was dismayed at seeing students breakfasting on Doritos and soda. “Take advantage of this opportunity,’’ he urged the young audience, “to shape the future of food.’’

Eric Rimm, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, talked about his experience with the Chefs in Schools initiative, a pilot program to improve Boston school lunches. Rimm found that more food was eaten when the chefs cooked, which he thinks bolsters the position that kids actually prefer healthy food.

Nutritionist and community activist Vivien Morris of Boston Medical Center spoke about food and social justice. A resident of Mattapan, Morris identified that neighborhood as a “food desert,’’ at least as far as nutritious options go. Josefine Wendel, a nutritionist who works with Cambridge Public Schools, conducted an instant audience poll via text message. Responses weren’t necessarily heartening: Asked if they wanted unhealthy food choices at school, about 65 percent of the students answered “yes.’’

Then half the audience watched Maws prepare homemade pasta, assisted by a student chosen from the audience. This was the moment when all their questions came pouring out, including: “How do they get the noodles in a packet of ramen to come together in a little brick?’’ and “How do they form the elbows for macaroni and cheese?’’ Then the payoff. Each student was served a taste of homemade pasta with tomato sauce. Brittney Cruse and Guerdith Joseph, both seniors at Parkway Academy, went for seconds, and Cruse said she’d consider making it at home. The extra work, she said, would be “worth it.’’

Afterward, the group perused the interactive displays while the others watched Maws. Many gave mixed reviews to the morning’s activities. “I don’t remember anything they said,’’ said senior Anne Rachelle Joseph of Everett High School. “But the pasta was good,’’ chimed in Ninoska Sosa, an Everett junior. Both students gave their own cafeteria the thumbs-up but saw room for improvement: They’d like to see the return of sugar-sweetened soda. “They have soda, but it’s diet,’’ complained Joseph.

“One reason we crave soda is because we can’t have it,’’ said Sosa.

“When you’re restricted,’’ agreed Joseph, “you want it more.’’

Sashae Walls, also a senior at Everett High, said the cafeteria has largely eliminated junk food and moved toward more fresh foods and whole grains. But the change, she says, has come at the expense of variety. “I appreciate everything they’re doing, but no one wants to eat the same thing every day.’’ Walls, a culinary student, found the morning sessions “really informative’’ but “a little dry.’’

Students spread the criticism around. Takila Adger, the winner of an essay contest that students participated in before the event, said, “I talked about how the food looks unappetizing.’’ Adger, a culinary student at Madison Park High School, added. “You don’t even want to look at it.’’

She advocated for fresher, more nutritious foods, but she bemoaned the recent loss of the school’s vending machines, which left students with only low-fat milk and water. No fair, said Adger and several others. How about juices or other non-soda choices?

“Kids have no voice,’’ said Adger. “[Adults] hear what we say, but they don’t listen.’’

When you ask kids their opinions, you may not like their comments.

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.