VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Picture it: healthy and nutritious meals children actually want to eat. This isn’t some dream that’s years away from being achieved. It’s happening right now in Virginia Beach.
I first learned of Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ Scratch Kitchen initiative in 2022 while reporting on a student-run garden at Glenwood Elementary School. The concept is simple: Chefs in school cafeterias use more fresh ingredients, especially fruits and vegetables, in the meals they serve. But cooking with healthier ingredients is only part of the recipe for success.
Take what I witnessed during a recent visit to Kempsville High School. There, lunchtime looks a lot different. When the lunch bell rang, I watched as students walked right past the cafeteria, outside to an area near the football field, where a big blue food truck stood. Inside the truck, school cafeteria workers put the finishing touches on the day’s special menu item: freshly made taco salads.
Students have other choices. Ninth grader Abagail Corpuz opted for a wrap with turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato.
“And I have some milk and apples,” Corpuz added.
Mostly gone are the sloppy joes and frozen fish sticks of lunches past. And for the students who choose to use the food truck, gone is the entire school lunchroom experience. The stereotypical “cafeteria lady” is history.
“We are moving away from that,” Nick Vedia, the district’s sous chef explained to me.
The food truck is part of that move. The kids call the truck “Big Blue” because, well, it’s big and blue. The truck is the first of its kind for a school system in Southeastern Virginia. It was born out of necessity.
“Not all of the kids can get to the cafeteria in time,” Vedia told me. “So, we thought that this food truck not only could help in the high schools, but also help in other schools,” he added.
The food truck regularly visits the city’s high schools. It also serves elementary and middle school students when requested. This concept is a big hit for a couple of reasons. Sure, food trucks are cool and trendy. But I quickly learned the secret ingredient to success: Students are heavily involved in the whole process, including when new menu items are introduced.
“We give it to them for free in a sample,” Vedia told me. “Then, we ask them what they feel about it, what they like or don’t like,” he added.
There is also an online survey students can take to offer feedback to cafeteria staff. It’s a lot like leaving a Yelp review at a restaurant.
I found a study led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University that underscores how important that student input is. Researchers tracked the nutritional value of the food students chose to put onto their trays in school cafeterias versus what the students actually ate. You can read the whole study here, but in essence, it found most kids are picky eaters. If you want them to eat healthier, you have to make the food taste better.
Maritza Rodriguez-Brown’s job is to develop new, healthier menu items that students will actually eat. Sometimes, as she told me, that means sneaking the “good for you” stuff into the meals.
“There’s a lot of recipes where we’ll blend in the onions, because a lot of kids don’t like onions or peppers,” Rodriguez-Brown said. “And you know, they like it."
Back to those taco salads I mentioned. Rodriguez-Brown allowed me to watch her team chop the fresh ingredients for the Pico de Gallo served with them. There were tomatoes, onions, cilantro and limes in the mix. There was even an option to substitute vegan crumbles for the taco meat.
All 83 Virginia Beach public schools now serve some made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch items. Many of them are a big hit. Rodriguez-Brown is particularly proud of the breakfast quesadillas.
“Oh, I went to a school last week, and they tore it up,” she boasted.
At the end of the day, that’s the goal in all of this. Serving healthier meals students actually want to eat, in a way that works for them. So, what about Abigail, the student I mentioned at the start of this article? What did she think of her meal?
“It’s actually really great,” she beamed.