Fresh Picks Cafe Helps Manchester 3rd-Graders Bring Tastier, Healthy Food To School Cafeteria

School lunches that meet federally mandated nutrition standards may be good for kids’ health, but not for kids’ taste buds — or a successful school food service program, for that matter.

That was the situation at Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester until Café Services overhauled the kitchen earlier this year and started serving up healthy versions of kids’ favorites in the Fresh Picks Café.

Think mac and cheese, soup and hot dogs made from lean turkey meat. “It was up to us to come up with healthy adaptations of the foods kids like,” says Frank Gillespie, Café Services Manager of Training and Nutrition Services.

Café Services District Manager, Cara Green, says the school cafeteria is a more exciting place to be than before it became the Fresh Picks Café. “The kids are noticeably enthusiastic about their new lunch choices,” she says.

Students Turn Dislike Of Cafeteria Fare Into School Lunch Improvement Project

This isn’t a surprise, when you consider it was a group of 3rd graders that turned their dissatisfaction with blah cafeteria food into a yearlong class project to improve school lunches.

The kids did research, conducted surveys and presented their findings at City Hall and ultimately, to Café Services.

Cafe Services revamped the Parker Varney school kitchen with its own funds. Today, the federal government reimburses it for the meals it serves at the school.

The food complies with the standards of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Free Act — standards that get pushback from students that find the food unappetizing and schools that feel the impact on food service revenue. But thanks to the fully outfitted kitchen and creativity of Fresh Picks Café, Parker Varney Elementary school kids aren’t complaining about the cafeteria food anymore.

Fresh Picks Cafe can prepare food same-day on site and use fresh ingredients whenever possible. This is a huge improvement from when the kitchen was just used to warm up large quantities of pre-made food from a central facility.

"The food sometime was soggy, so the kids didn't want food like that. They wanted hot food that could be served right away," says Misha Philippe, a student leader of the project quoted in a March 21 online article from New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR).

According to NHPR, the 9-year-old says the experience has changed her eating habits beyond school: “When I'm eating something, I think, ‘This is healthy and this is not healthy.’ So I try to eat the healthy stuff more often, and the less healthy stuff sometimes."

Tastier, Healthier Lunches Earn Top Marks From Students

To Café Services, Philippe’s feedback is like music to our ears. “Encouraging smarter food choices at school is a big part of the Fresh Picks Cafe mission to help kids develop healthy lifestyle habits,” says Green.

If the response at Parker Varney is any indication, the Fresh Picks Café mission has a bright future. In a latter phase of the school project, 3rd-graders surveyed their peers about how they like the new fare. The results were positive with kids favoring the new menu to the old by a margin of about 25-to-1.