Critics serving up strong opinions run the risk of backlash from those who don’t share their views, as Laguna Beach eighth grader and foodie Noah Rosen recently discovered after posting a self-described “scathing” review of his school’s lunch offerings to his foodie blog web site “Your Taste Buddy.”
Noah’s negative commentary left school officials with a bad taste at a time when the district’s efforts to serve healthier food has run in the red because fewer kids are buying $4.50 lunches.
For the past two years, the district’s food services program went over budget by $106,000, due to higher food costs and a drop in fee-paying customers as well as an increase in demand for subsidized lunches. Last year, school officials could not say if a 75-cent price increase or menu changes were responsible.
But some of the parents on a committee working with the district’s food service administrator to improve cafeteria quality and reduce costs agreed with Noah’s basic assessment and applauded his scientific approach. “Noah did a great job,” said Tiffani Ghere, calling his review objective, consistent and unbiased. She also agreed with Noah’s assessment that the Thurston Middle School cafeteria might do well to scale back their menu to fewer items that are healthy crowd-pleasers, rather than insisting on offering numerous options of uncertain quality.
Initially unaware of Noah’s review, Thurston administrators highlighted Noah’s blog last month in their Weekend Report, which posts on-campus notices about standout activities by students outside of school, said Thurston’s principal, Jenny Salberg.
School officials subsequently discovered Noah’s disparaging review. “They felt truly offended,” said the budding food critic, who ended up removing the review after being called into the principal’s office five times to discuss what administrators told him was “very negative and untrue.”
Noah looks for freshness and quality of the food he critiques, in addition to flavor, the method of cooking and health factors. His goal is not to bash the school but to promote change. “I’m trying to get some constructive criticism going here,” he said, adding that he was offended by what he termed “intimidation tactics” when administrators complained about his first review.
Noah’s paramount concern was that his Taste Buddy posters on campus would be taken down if his review remained on the site. Prior to the school’s open house, a publicity opportunity he cherished, Noah removed his critical remarks.
“I’ve been a foodie since I was very young,” said Noah, who began the web site last December and will enter the inaugural culinary arts conservatory at Santa Ana’s Orange County High School of the Arts in August.
After his original review drew criticism, Noah decided to review Thurston’s menu options again. This time he aimed for a more objective approach using 55 students filling out detailed survey questions, as well as organizing a tasting panel of six students who weren’t friends that tried all of the regular menu items.
His conclusions remained largely unchanged, now strengthened by data. Noah courteously sent copies of his findings to school administrators before the review went live on his site last week. (View results at YourTasteBuddy.com.)
While he judged Thurston’s regular menu items as okay to terrible, he admitted that daily specials were often quite good. Unfortunately, they sell out early, so kids who habitually get to lunch later lose out on that option.
Two years ago, a district nutrition committee led by food services director Debra Appel began working to improve the quality of basic ingredients, serve tastier dishes and reduce costs. In a presentation to the school board last month, Appel highlighted the improved nutritional value of school meals and greater availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Parent members of the nutrition committee, Tammy Skenderian and Ghere, also praised improvements incorporated so far, but suggested Laguna could do more by reworking their program and adopting best practices of other districts.
Skenderian and Ghere are also part of an informal parent group dedicated to improving school meals that have researched food vendors, chefs who help schools, and visited other school cafeterias. One finding: Laguna’s lunches are among the most expensive in the county, $1.25 more than lunches served in Irvine.
Ghere, a pediatric dietician, and Skenderian insist two key elements are necessary to achieve a high quality food service that is self-sustaining: a nutritionist to train food workers in devising healthy menus and a professional chef to teach them how to make entrees taste good. With proper training and management, possibly a repurposing of cafeteria staff, they said the district can not only improve the quality and appeal of the food, but make it pay for itself. “It can be done,” said Skenderian. “There’s a way to make this work.”
Coincidentally, an anonymous Schoolpower donor recently pledged $100,000, ostensibly to improve district nutrition. Addressing the board at that meeting, both Skenderian and Ghere suggested that such a donation might be best spent on hiring a nutritionist and professional chef to train the food services staff and overhaul the current program.
Board members, though, seemed reluctant to revamp the department’s direction and more inclined to back the purchase of a salad bar at Thurston and some grab and go food cases, though no final decision was made.