Tasty dilemma, pizza or pita?

Which is better, pizza or pita? It depends on who you ask. In January 2007, the three elementary schools on the Island did a lot of asking, a lot of sampling, and made a lot of improvements. After receiving a grant last October, the Mercer Island School District Wellness Committee piloted a one-month lunch program, “Four Weeks of Finer Food,” which featured more nutritious and appealing choices for elementary school children.

The program’s goal is to gradually bridge the gap between the price of current menu items and healthier, more expensive items. It also investigated student preferences centering on a variety of foods.

Parent volunteers worked in the lunch room collecting data, and when kids returned to class from lunch, teachers (sometimes with the help of the students) conducted a survey to obtain results.

Some of the changes included a better stocked salad bar, the addition of new entrees, and some subtle changes to old entrees — such as replacing the pizza crust with one made with whole wheat dough, and replacing white bagels with wheat ones.

Overall, the kids were as enthusiastic as the parents about the changes.

At Lakeridge, Island Park, and West Mercer elementary schools, the results were very similar. The most popular entrees by number purchased were cheese pizza and chicken nuggets. These were the top two entrees at all of the schools, with an overwhelming number (90 percent or more) of kids reporting that they would order it again. The teriyaki dippers, baked potato, and the chef salad were also quite popular.

One respondent said the new food was “wonderlicious,” and that the chicken seemed “to have more taste.”

Likewise, at all of the schools, the pita with hummus, veggie stir fry, and veggie burger were on the low end of numbers of entrees purchased, with around only 50 percent reporting they would buy such entrees again.

However, when kids sampled these types of foods before committing to buy it for lunch, the feedback was mainly positive, leading the study to predict that kids will steer clear of foods that look unfamiliar or “different.”

“Hummus tasted like a bite of heaven,” one child said. After sampling the pita, a lot of the kids said they would try it again.

Many thought the subtle changes on pizza were headed in the right direction as well.

“You can’t taste a difference between the old and new pizza,” said one respondent, referring to the new whole wheat crust. This was common; either kids couldn’t tell a difference (one-third of respondents) or, they thought it tasted markedly better (two-thirds of participants). Not one respondent commented that they disliked it. Another comment was that the crust was softer, and “better for braces.”

Teachers and lunch workers commented that children loved the salad bar offerings, as well, saying that the kids cleaned it out by the time lunch was over. The feedback from the kids, was that they liked the “new lettuce [spinach],” and the fresh fruits and veggies were good, especially the carrots, oranges and pineapple.

For all of the changes, the results were overwhelming positive. “I’m trying new things, and I love it,” said a student.

As the days went on, kids seemed to get more into the program, said parent volunteers. At home, kids were making healthier choices and were more eager to buy lunch at school. The kids also seemed to enjoy the “Veggie Believer” and “You Better Wash Your Hands” videos that were played at lunch.

The program reportedly cost an additional $4,200 per month, and would be impossible to continue without a raise in student lunch costs.

“Our family would be happy to pay for an increase in the price of school lunch if it means that kids will be offered more wholesome, sensible food,” said one parent in the report.

“Four Weeks of Finer Food” ended with January, but the findings were valuable, said the report.

“We feel we have helped lay some groundwork for the school district and the Food Services Department to be able to improve lunch offerings,” the report said. It shows that we’d be “well justified in increasing lunch prices accordingly.”

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