Schools Test New Lunch Dishes With Blunt Kids as Judges. ‘The Seasoning is, Um, Not the Best.’

By Ben Chapman for the Wall Street Journal

PORTLAND, Maine—The “carrot hot dog” experiment went down as an epic culinary failure. But school officials weren’t deterred. They pressed on by testing new recipes with the pickiest focus group they could find.

In a series of food auditions held last month in linoleum-floored school cafeterias, Portland Public Schools Food Service Director Jane McLucas and her staff dished out paper cups of an African-inspired, chicken and kale stew and waited nervously for the reactions.

You’d be nervous too if your taste testers were brutally honest teens.

“It’s pretty good,” ruled Ariana Sivo, 15, a freshman at Deering High School, before veering into a backhanded compliment. “Chicken here, usually, it’s like, sometimes I don’t even know if it’s chicken. But this is cooked well.”

Sitting with his friends, freshman Asa Tussing, 14, appreciated the stew’s flavor profile but saw room for growth in visual appeal. “The serving size is kind of small,” he said. “And it’s not like the presentation is amazing.”

That smelled like success to Ms. McLucas. Two versions of the kale stew, one with chicken and the other vegan, will appear in Portland schools this fall.

School lunches in the U.S. can get a bad rap: pizza day is OK; everything else is meh. And schools regularly chew over the dispiriting stats on fare that goes from tray to trash. According to a USDA study, about a quarter of school food ends up in the garbage.

So now, Portland and a growing number of districts nationwide are revamping their menus by relying on the opinions of students themselves. Students can be unsparing food critics, Ms. McLucas said, as the carrot hot dog debacle in 2019 attested. That item, which consisted of a roasted vegetable placed inside a typical hot dog bun, lasted for one day before it was removed from the menu.

“Kids didn’t want the carrot,” she said.

Broadening the cafeteria menu is tricky. President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946 and now more than 30 million students eat lunch at school. As popular as the program is, it isn’t known for its flair. Currently, the top two most popular items are cheese pizza and fried foods, with french fries a top “vegetable,” according to Harris School Solutions, an Ottawa-based technology provider that tracks data on school meals. …

FoodCorps, a nonprofit organization that promotes healthful food in schools, even has an online guide to help educators hold sampling sessions with small, tough customers. The guide describes, “The 6 Types of Elementary School Taste-Testers.”

Among others, there is the “Resolute ‘No’ ”—“often accompanied by head-shaking and eye-contact aversion, no matter how many times you ask,” and the “Cool Cucumber.” The latter shows “no signs of being intimidated by trying something new, but neither do they show signs of excitement. They calmly try it, state their opinion, and move on with the rest of their lunch wondering why you bothered them in the first place.”