When Springbrook High School student Naomi Richardson first took a bite of the “Sweet-Heat Potatoes,” she was taken aback by the ranch sauce that coated the plate of sweet potatoes.
“I liked the sweet potatoes but when it got to the sauce it was too tangy and ranchy,” she said.
Richardson and about a dozen middle and high school students tried the dish and several others Thursday during a tasting session of several plant-based meal options that Montgomery County Public Schools is considering for school lunches. The tasting took place at MCPS’s Division of Food and Nutrition Services.
For Richardson, who isn’t a vegetarian or a vegan, flavor is imperative when it comes to adding plant-based options to school menus.
“Sometimes it could be a little appetizing but for this, I feel for the plant-based [menu] you have to add a lot more seasoning if you wanted to like actually enjoy it,” she said.
Real Food for Kids partnered with Silver Diner and Montgomery County Public Schools to develop plant-based recipes for school meals. The recipes, created by Silver Diner Executive Chef Ype Von Hengst, were tasted by more than a dozen students from MCPS middle schools and high schools.
“We knew that we had a need for this. We knew that our students wanted to see other foods, they wanted to see vegan and vegetarian dishes and they wanted to see vegan and vegetarian dishes that are different from just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” said Barbara Harral, director of MCPS division of food and nutrition services.
Real Food for Kids partnered with Silver Diner and Montgomery County Public Schools to develop the plant-based recipes for school meals. Real Food for Kids is an advocacy group that aims to change eating behaviors and improve health outcomes for children and families in the Greater Washington region through sustainable access to whole foods, nutrition education and policy changes.
Ype Von Hengst, founder and executive chef of the Rockville-based Silver Diner chain, created the recipes for MCPS. Hengst won Food Network’s “Chopped” contest in 2017.
“Real Food for Kids really wants to see school food as a guest experience as restaurants do,” said Bonnie Moore, the group’s executive director and a board member. “Silver Diner has one of the healthiest kids menus in the country and chef Ype has been recognized nationwide for his healthy school menus.”
Moore said Barbara Harral, director of the MCPS division of food and nutrition services, and her team identified a need to develop vegan and plant-forward dishes for school menus. “We knew that we had a need for this. We knew that our students wanted to see other foods, they wanted to see vegan and vegetarian dishes and they wanted to see vegan and vegetarian dishes that are different from just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Harral said.
Poolesville High School student Leah Becker, one of student testers, is a vegetarian who said she would love to have additional plant-based options offering in her school. She said the current vegetarian lunch options include pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese crunchers, which are fried mozzarella in the shape of a square.
“This year I’ve been mostly bringing my lunch because I can never predict if they’re gonna have something I can eat,” she said.
The group of students tasted two vegan dishes and two vegetarian options. The two vegan options were the Sweet-Heat Potatoes, comprised of sweet potatoes, a sweet chili mix and a ranch sauce; and Thai red curry sauce over edamame and chickpeas with whole-grain rice. The vegetarian dishes were white bean and pesto dip with roasted tomatoes on a flat bread and a three-bean torta with roasted corn salad.
Hengst said it’s his passion to provide healthier food options for those he serves.
“Silver Diner, we have been around for 33 years, we would not have been around for 33 years if we wouldn’t have adopted our food and changed our food and listened to our guests,” Hengst said. “So, the same thing happens here over at the school.”
The students first tasted the white bean and pesto dip with roasted tomatoes on a flat bread. The dish needed more tomatoes, they said, and there were some concerns about the flathead getting soggy. When it came to the “sweet heat potatoes,” students said the dish should be spicier, the potatoes should be crispier and the zesty ranch sauce should be served on the side.
The Thai red curry dish seemed the least popular, with some students saying the chickpeas and rice were bland and they would like the curry sauce to have a coconut base like a traditional Thai curry.
Most students thought the dishes needed more salt. But adding sodium to school food presents its own issues, Harral explained to the students.
“We have sodium targets to hit in school meals so one of challenges for us is that we have a week’s worth of meals that we average that we have to hit a sodium target,” Harral said. “So a lot of times, there are a lot of dishes where we say ‘Ooh, I love this, I would love to add more salt’ and because of hidden sodium, we are unable to do that.”
None of the tasting dishes are the final products. Harral said there will be multiple food tastings as they continue to refine the menu items based on the students’ feedback.
“We’ll take everything [the students] talked to us about so we will tweak the recipes and the concepts,” Harral said. “What we’ll do is we’ll go back out into the schools, especially Springbrook and Paint Branch [high schools] because of their culinary training programs and these are the kids that tasted it the first times, so we’ll work with them and say ‘Okay, here’s what you told us, here’s what we did, now what do you think?’ Once we get that sort of second view from them, then we will probably do a larger taste testing.”
Harrah said a few meatless options are currently available in elementary, middle and high school such as Morningstar Farm vegan nuggets, Dr. Praeger’s vegan burgers, a roasted butternut squash soup and a three-bean chili, which she said the students seem to like.
Towards the end of the tasting one student commented how it might be difficult to incorporate the menu items into schools when they are served next to unhealthy options such as burgers and pizza. According to Harral, there is already a plan in place to remedy the menu introduction.
“We know that kids, if they see a chicken nugget, they’re gonna take a chicken nugget but we are leading on the menu with our plant-based items,” she said. “So instead of it saying ‘special of the day: chicken nuggets, pizza,’ we are leading with our entrée salads and our plant-based and plant-forward [menu items]. Then, at the bottom of the menu, we have what we call our fan favorites.”