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Norwich - About 150 well-behaved elementary and middle school students were chosen for a special mission Wednesday that will affect their everyday school experiences next year.
They were chosen as taste testers in the school system's first food-rating event, which allowed students to rank different brands of menu staples such as chicken patties, fish nuggets, macaroni and cheese, cheese quesadillas, meatballs and four varieties of cheese pizza.
After the rankings are tallied, the winning brands and styles will be purchased for school lunches next school year, Food Services Director Roberta Jacobs said. All 10 entrees have whole-grain breading and low fat.
Because of new federal regulations that took effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, school districts across the country have changed menus to add more types and amounts of fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, while subtracting fats and calories. The new rules, the first major overhaul in 15 years, are intended to combat rising rates of childhood obesity while also improving intake of more nutritious foods and positively influencing the lifelong eating habits of the nation's youth.
Jacobs had simple criteria for the fourth- through eighth-graders chosen for the taste-off. They had to be good students, well-behaved and "good lunch eaters."
Students took their job seriously. Idle chatter was at a minimum, as students compared spiciness, cheese quality and tenderness of the entrees. One student cautioned friends that they shouldn't eat an entire piece of pizza because there was so much food left to taste.
Teachers chaperoning the event at the Bishop School cafeteria mused that they had never experienced such a quiet cafeteria.
"I love food," Edberney Edmonds, a sixth-grader at Teachers' Memorial Middle School, said of the reason she was chosen. "I know how to cook."
Jacob Zayac, a Kelly Middle School eighth-grader, wrote that the first chicken patty was "tough and hard to chew." The second one was more what he would expect at a school lunch, and the third was too hard.
"It was really nice to think about how the students feel," said Tiffany Zhang, an eighth-grader at Kelly. "And the people are really nice."
The tables were staffed by a mix of school food services staff and representatives from the food distribution center that provides food to Norwich schools. Jacobs told students to make sure they filled out their own score sheets, with no help from the servers or their friends.
Diane Burbank of the food distribution company M&R Frosted Food Co. of West Haven, offered the students at her pizza table some pointers. She said they should note the differences in the crust, the sauce and the cheese in the three varieties of 5-inch round pizzas.
Burbank said she does similar tasting tables at food shows but not often in a school for students.
Jacobs said she got the idea for the food-tasting contest at a conference, where a speaker from Florida described how his district allows students to rate the offerings. Norwich school administrators jumped on the idea.
The winning food brands and varieties will be the ones requested in the upcoming bid package for food distribution companies to offer prices.
Jacobs said she didn't include side dishes in the samples. All lunches come with vegetable and fruit choices.