When you think about cafeteria food, the words “tasty” or “healthy” don’t come to mind. But Tazeen Chowdhury, Food Service Director at Mt. Lebanon School District is trying to change that perception. Wednesday morning, the PTA meeting was invited to the cafeteria to taste some of her creations that meet the strict government standards of health.
Middle school moms sat scattered around the all-too-familiar lunch tables as I slipped into the meeting alongside them. Chowdhury and Dave Misterka, supervisor for the food services, began their presentation of the first entree item: a turkey sandwich with whole-grain bread and fresh vegetables. Behind them sat an array of fresh fruit and vegetable cups, available to students in unlimited amounts with the purchase of a meal. I remember my days at Mellon and my excitement when it was a tater-tot day. Oh, how times have changed.
Or have they? Next up was a presentation about a spicy chicken sandwich, one of the iconic meals from my middle school years. But this time, Chowdhury has changed the recipe and says the chicken is breaded with whole wheat crumbs, the bread is whole wheat and the spice is what keeps kids from adding sauce, which can easily derail an otherwise healthy meal. Misterka helped by passing around samples to the PTA members and they nodded their heads in approval. One mother even reached for seconds. Rolling into the next item on the menu, Misterka began to talk about the three salads available for kids—Cobb, garden and chef salads—another meal choice that rings a bell for me. So some things do stay the same.
Chowdhury’s main goal is “to teach students what they should be eating,” she announced to our group. Part of that includes sending home a recipe card each month, so students are empowered to try to recreate some of their cafeteria favorites in their own kitchens. When she casually mentioned that kale chips are on their menu, I was intrigued. A mention of edamame came next and I was blown away. The thought of middle school students choosing to eat eggplant is the final straw: Chowdhury must be working miracles.
And it seems as though the PTA members agreed. As they tasted the the whole-wheat cheese pizza, several eyebrows raised in disbelief. They’re eating what’s called a Domino’s smart slice: pizza loaded with fiber and magnesium, reduced sodium sauce and low-fat mozzarella cheese. It’s made especially for school cafeterias and is engineered to meet the strict federal standards that have been implemented in recent years. The parents are fans; I can tell from their enthusiastic, slightly disbelieving exchanges. And I’m beginning to kick myself for turning down samples.
As the presentation ends, I caught a few parents sneakily eyeing up the leftover whole-wheat pierogies, but most of them stood up to rush Chowdhury with praise and questions. As she became surrounded by PTA members, I watched the cafeteria workers quietly file into the kitchen and begin preparations for Wednesday’s lunch. After all, for Chowdhury and her staff, it was still just another day at work, making sure middle school students get the food they need−and eat it.