photos by Jane Schneider
Foodservice marketers were doing their best to pitch new food products to curious Shelby County School (SCS) students last month. It was the Nutrition Department’s annual Food Fair, held at the end of January, which brings together more than 200 food vendors to Colonial Middle School in hopes of appealing to pint-sized appetites. Here, the pungent aroma of pizza and biscuits mingles with meatballs and buffalo wings, tempting a steady stream of students as they file into the gymnasium. Their job is simple, to taste their way across room and determine which foods they like best.
As I stop by Ronnie Prince’s booth, he’s enthusiastically singing the praises of Greek yogurt to skeptical teens. It’s a tough sell. But Prince is animated and friendly, handing out dollops of yogurt on teaspoons, urging students to have a taste. Two girls gingerly give it a go.
“What do you think? Did it surprise you?” Prince asks as the girls consider his question. Soon, a smile dawns. “Wow,” replies Overton sophomore Hollie Robertson. “I don’t usually like yogurt, but this is really good.”
As a marketing specialist for Select Foodservice Marketing, Prince represents a farmers’ co-op in Upstate New York that produces the yogurt, a dairy item nutritionally packed with protein and a good fit for growing bodies. He hopes students will give his yogurt favorable marks in the survey they fill out after each tasting. Select is just one of five yogurt vendors here, but if his fairs well, it might urge the folks in Nutrition Services to offer his yogurt in school cafeterias next year.
“There’s lots of redundancy because we want the kids to compare these products,” says Nutrition Services Director Tony Geraci. “Was this one smoother, tastier? And they’re brutally honest. I like to engage the kids, they’re part of my decision-making process.”
Giving kids choice
While food fairs are a relatively new to Shelby County Schools (Geraci held the first one three years ago), they’ve been used effectively by other districts across the state for the past decade as a way of introducing new foods to school children.
Cafeteria foods have long been created and approved by nutritionists and chefs. Strict federal guidelines also dictate the nutritional balance all foods served in public schools must meet. But as any parent will tell you, a kid’s palate differs from an adult’s. Kids can be notoriously picky eaters. Tired of throwing away millions of dollars in food that’s been barely touched, school systems have steadily determined the best way to feed hungry students is to have them be part of the tasting process.
What about that, Top Cat?
So each year, the food fair offers a variety of products kids try out, from biscuits and meat patties to raisins, cookies, French toast, even condiments. Some, like the Greek yogurt, might be new, but not everything the kids try is foreign. A group of second grade boys patiently line up at Hicks’ Smoked Meats where owner Darrell Hicks offers up a taste of his hearty heat-and-eat barbecue pork.
“What about that, Top Cat?” Hicks says with a wink. The boy looks up from his cup, a dab of sauce still clinging to his lips. “I’d eat in the cafeteria every day if they had barbecue like this!” he says enthusiastically. “Then don’t forget to sign the paperwork or we won’t be in your schools,” he replies.
Hicks started his business two and a half years ago after working for years as a professional caterer. This was his first attempt at selling to a public school system, though his product is featured at 11 Six Flags theme parks and carried wholesale locally by Sysco Foods. Hicks uses high-quality meat, smoking only Boston butts at his plant in Smithfield, Tennessee. “It’s a healthy quality product,” he says. And the fact that it’s regional is a plus.
Geraci’s team will be evaluating student surveys to determine which foods will be added to next year’s menu. Also worth noting is that the school’s free-and-reduced lunch program could soon be a thing of the past. Starting in the fall of 2014, Geraci hopes all SCS students will eat school meals for free, “Because you can’t teach hungry kids,” he says. Perhaps after tasting the tempting foods served here, kids will be further motivated to line up at the school cafeteria.