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School Smorgasbord

City school students test possible lunch items at food fair.

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School lunches have a reputation as being tasteless, overcooked, fattening, and just plain gross.

But Memphis City Schools is hoping to change what's on its menu.

Last week, the district's division of nutrition services held its second annual food show with 47 vendors and 130 items. More than 500 students from six schools — on perhaps the most filling field trip ever — taste-tested whole-grain biscuits, cheese quesadillas, frozen juice, pizza, French toast, fish nuggets, sweet potato fries, and something called a frudel.

"Our goal is to change the perception of school lunches and to find items that students like," said Vista Surarez, director of the nutrition services division. "If kids don't eat anything, that's not nutritious, either."

Each group of students was led through the booths like a group of tourists at a wine tasting.

"Because there's so much here, we tell them to just taste it," said Danielle Burks, the nutrition services representative overseeing a group of Dunbar Elementary School students eating apple-filled "jammer sticks." "They get excited and wolf down the food at the first two tables and then they're already full."

At each station, students filled out color-coded forms, circling a smiley face or a frowny face to indicate whether they liked the food.

Adults were pitched on the nutritional value of each item, while the students got something of a different sell.

"You don't want to tell kids these are whole-grain," said one man giving out samples of a spicy chili cheese wrap. "It's also all soy; there's no meat."

But the food fair was more than a free lunch. The district ultimately hopes the new menu will help students learn.

City schools superintendent Kriner Cash said they told the vendors they wanted healthier food items with less sugar, fewer calories, and more fiber.

"Out of this will come a more balanced and healthier menu and drive our participation rates up," Cash said. "Healthier children make better students."

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