LISTEN: Students grade cafeteria food at NYC schools’ test kitchen — and in real cafeterias, too

Two young students smile or give a thumbs up while eating from a plate of school lunch at a wooden table with two adults in the background.
Fourth grade students from Manhattan's P.S. 187 visit the NYC Education Department's test kitchen in Long Island City, Queens. (Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat)

Welcome to P.S. Weekly’s food episode, where students are the critics.

High schoolers in the Bronx sound off on the “soggy” grilled cheese sandwiches served in their cafeteria (on “Vegan Friday,” no less). Students discuss having microwave access during lunch. And we join Manhattan fourth graders as they trek to Queens to visit the test kitchen for NYC school cafeterias — winning the invite after one of their classmates wrote a letter complaining when the roasted chicken was removed from the menu because of budget cuts.

P.S. Weekly is available on major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Be sure to drop a review in your app or shoot an email to PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org. Tell us what you learned today or what you’re still wondering. We just might read your comment on a future episode.

P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat and The Bell. Listen for new episodes Wednesdays this spring.


Read the full episode transcript below

HOST (Sanaa): Welcome to PS Weekly… The sound of the New York City School System. P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat New York.

I’m your host this week, Sanaa Stokes. I’m an 11th grader at The Professional Performing Arts School in Midtown Manhattan, where some of New York’s best eats are located… And speaking of eats, in just a moment, we’ll hear a lot more about food in New York City schools.

HOST (Sanaa): But first, the Chalkbeat Bulletin….

Julian: I’m Julian Shen-Berro, a reporter from Chalkbeat. Here’s a recap of the week’s biggest education stories:

Schools Chancellor David Banks testified at a Congressional hearing focused on antisemitism in K-12 schools. It was the same committee that grilled several college presidents. Banks told members of Congress that New York City schools have seen “unacceptable incidents of antisemitism,” but that schools have responded to troubling incidents with both education and discipline.

NYC officials are looking to virtual learning to help meet a new mandate limiting class size to no more than 25 students. Virtual learning could potentially help campuses that are tight on space, as students could learn from home–AFTER school and on weekends. Schools have until 2028 to meet the new classroom caps.

And as childhood hunger rises, New York City is launching a program for schools to donate leftover food directly to families in need or to food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens.

To stay up to date on local education news throughout the week, go to chalkbeat.org/newsletters and sign up for the New York Daily Roundup.

HOST (Sanaa): Thanks, Chalkbeat! Now, LETTUCE get into it!

HOST (Sanaa): When kids are hungry, it’s hard to do well in school. For years, New York City schools had a program providing free meals to students who qualified based on financial need, but that gave school food a stigma. Some kids who needed it most, didn’t want to eat it. And there were tens of thousands of kids whose families earned just above the cutoff — but paying full price for school lunch was still a hardship.

All of that changed in 2017, when the city made school meals COMPLETELY free for the million children in public schools. And while that was essential in making sure that all students can eat during the school day, the challenge of food inequity didn’t end there…

Today’s episode is all about FOOD. With our first story, here’s P.S. Weekly reporter Ava Stryker-Robbins.

Segment A1: Test Kitchen

NARR (Ava): Fourth grader Elsa Hammerman is a big fan of the food in the cafeteria of her Washington Heights, Manhattan, school. So when her favorite chicken dish disappeared earlier this spring — a result of budget cuts — Elsa … wrote a letter.

Elsa: Dear Mr. Tricarico, I’m a fourth grader who goes to P.S. I 187.

NARR (Ava): Christopher Tricarico is the senior executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, responsible for all New York City school cafeterias.

Elsa: Me and my friends’ favorite school lunch is the roasted chicken. We hate to see it leave the menu so we were hoping maybe to bring it back next month. It’s okay if not . I understand you may lose money, but please consider it. Sincerely, Elsa Hammerman

NARR (Ava): She sent the letter. Life went on. Then…

Elsa: One day my principal came into our classroom and she asked to talk to me in the hall. At first I was scared because I thought I was in trouble. But then she told me that he wanted to speak to me and my class. So he came to our school with his team and we got to tell him what we like about the foods and what we don’t like

NARR (Ava): And…

Elsa: A few days after we did get the chicken back and it was never better. I was super happy and I was like bouncing off of my friend’s shoulders and she was like, ‘calm down, calm down.’ But everyone was super excited to see that it was back.

NARR (Ava): Elsa wasn’t the only one who complained about the cuts. After outcry from students across the five boroughs, city officials agreed to reinstate popular menu items like French toast sticks, bean and cheese burritos, and chicken dumplings. Schools Chancellor David Banks said feedback from students like Elsa was a key reason for the reversal.

Chancellor David C. Banks NEWS CLIP:: “Once we made some adjustments and pulled back on some menu items, we heard from the kids loud and clear. They were not happy about that ….  And I encourage every young person to continue to speak up about the changes that they hope to see in their schools "

NARR (Ava): But that wasn’t the end of the story for Elsa and her classmates.

Christopher Tricarico: We visited the school to meet with her and her class and they had such a great way of explaining what they saw on the menu, what was taken from the menu, and what was being added back to the menu.

NARR (Ava): Christopher Tricarico, the guy in charge of food.

Christopher Tricarico: So we were able to fit her in here so her whole class could see that their voice, their concern, and their advocacy for school food, was really important.

NARR (Ava): Here — The DOE’s School. Food. Test Kitchen.

Alex: Yeah, so what are we, what are we doing here today?

Ava: So we’re going to a DOE test kitchen facility

NARR (Ava): A few weeks ago, Chalkbeat reporter Alex Zimmerman and I got to tag along with Elsa and her classmates on their visit.

Alex: And we’re in Hunter’s Point, Queens. We’re in a giant building that looks kind of like a warehouse that has, like, these huge loading dock doors out front.

NARR (Ava): This is where dishes become official menu items for the city’s hundreds of cafeterias.  They have to win approval from the only critics who matter… STUDENTS.

AMBIENT: Sound of students

NARR (Ava): When we arrive, about two dozen 4th graders are settling into rows of desks. In what looks like a classroom, complete with a Smartboard at the front. But behind an inconspicuous door that could easily be mistaken for a closet is an industrial kitchen humming with the same equipment school cafeterias have on hand. The food staff have been busy assembling trays of new menu items that are ready to be shuttled out to the student testers. It kind of feels like the set of a television show.

Chantal: Welcome to taste testing, all right? So, today, it’s your turn, however, before we actually start taste testing, I want to play a game, just to see if you guys…

NARR (Ava): This is Chantal Hewlett, the Student Taste Testing Supervisor. ChantalChantelle got her start in school food 20 years ago as a cafeteria manager and now hosts student groups at the test kitchen. She looks for feedback on everything from flavor to how hard it is to open the packaging.

Chantal: Right, and like I said before, today it’s all about you. If you don’t like something, it’s okay. Let us know now. So we can fix it. Because again, we take your comments and we share them with the company. Okay? They don’t want to hear what the adults have to say.

MUSIC

NARR (Ava): Today’s task: students will taste and rate four food items: an egg and cheese sandwich, a cheesy pasta dish called manicotti, hummus, and a barbecue chicken slider.

NARR (Ava):  Here’s the process. Students eat the dish in silence. Once they develop an opinion, they hold up a card called a plicker — basically a fancy bar code. If they hold the card rightside up, it means they liked the dish. Holding it sidewise means they didn’t like it. Then, ChantalChantelle stands at the front of the room and scans all of the codes at once with her phone, which generates an instant tally of how many children approve of what they just ate.

NARR (Ava):  Then, on worksheets, students write down what they do or don’t like about the dish.

NARR (Ava): First up: Egg and cheese sandwich.

Chantal: So we’re going to get started with number one, right? We also have ketchup. If anyone wants ketchup with their eggs, that’s fine. All right. And I’m going to tell the adults, please don’t tell the students what to write at all. I’ll be leading the comments later….

NARR (Ava): It looks like a dinner roll stuffed with scrambled egg and melted cheese inside. Alex watches kids in the front of the room while I’m in the back as they chew and ponder and hold up their cards and write their comments. They’re taking their jobs VERY seriously. Then, eventually, they’re allowed to talk.

Student 1: So I thought the egg, like after you taste it, I have to say it’s a little unflavorful, but it felt a little dry for some reason. And also the packet was really wet. So like when I first took out, like I had to like, dry off because I don’t like eating wet food

Student 3: So I really like the meal. Usually eggs give me headaches, so the way that the egg was cooked, didn’t like give me a headache. I did recommend maybe like the size be a bit bigger, but because I know you guys get like other things too, but like for a bit more protein in the morning, maybe just like a bigger size.

Chantal:  These are great comments. This is why we do the taste testing…

NARR (Ava): Despite the student critiques, the egg sandwich is an overall hit. Out of 22 student votes, only four said they didn’t like it.

NARR (Ava): In a given year, between 1,500 and 2,000 students from different grade levels and neighborhoods cycle through the test kitchen. School principals typically volunteer their schools — and visits to the test kitchen are so popular that there’s a waiting list to get in.

NARR (Ava): But at the test kitchen, not every item is a hit.

Chantal: We’ve had a burger, a veggie burger. Actually, this is a perfect one that the students didn’t like.

NARR (Ava): Chantal again.

Chantal: When we got it, It was falling apart. It wasn’t shaped properly. You know, the cooking method wasn’t correct. The students thought it needed more flavor. And so we told the company, these are their comments and actually the company just sent us back the reformulated products. So they fixed it.

NARR (Ava): The negative feedback from students can be just as important as the rave reviews.

Chantal: They want to make sure that whatever they cook and serve, the kids actually eat it as opposed to putting it in the garbage.

NARR (Ava): Taste testing is crucial these days as schools implement big menu changes. Christopher Tricarico explains.

Christopher: I think the move now is to continue to expose children to more culturally diverse meals, but also healthier meals coming up with plant powered Fridays and Meatless Mondays, these are examples of providing options for students. We need to be able to meet them where they want to be but we also want to make sure we’re serving healthy and nutritious and delicious meals.

NARR (Ava): And have you been receiving positive feedback from students in schools based off of these shows?

Christopher: We get all kinds of feedback. But it’s my team’s job to take that feedback and really address things at the school level. One of the things I love is that when kids are in school and they like or dislike something that they’re eating, they talk to the kitchen staff. That’s some of the best feedback we get at the school level.

NARR (Ava): About 150 to 200 students from schools across the city typically try each item. And before the Education Department greenlights it for school menus, roughly 75% of those who try it have to like it.

NARR (Ava): On the day we visit, the school food staff have a feeling one item in particular is going to be a tough sell: The manicotti — basically tubes of pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and topped with tomato sauce and a dusting of parmesan.

Chantal: So try new things. Don’t just say, ‘you know what, oh, the white thing in the middle, I don’t like it…

NARR (Ava): With 11 students voting against, the manicotti is the only item that a majority of these fourth graders do not approve.

NARR (Ava): Some students refuse to even try it. It turns out that these fourth graders really do not like ricotta.

Instructor: Cheese in the middle with the cheese on top?

STUDENT 3: The cheese in the middle. Parmesan is the best but that cheese in the middle… [laughter]

Instructor: Didn’t do it for you… OK what about you right here?

NARR (Ava): The student testers are tough critics —the chicken sliders and hummus don’t fare much better.

Luke: The un-breaded chicken slider, it got a 53%.

NARR (Ava): That’s Luke McGeown, senior menu specialist.

Luke: And then the hummus got a 63%. So in our standard, that’s usually failing.

Luke: But again, each class is different, each child is different. So tomorrow, when we have a school from the Bronx, they could pass these products with flying colors. It just depends.

Luke: This was a pretty great group. Actually, sometimes kids don’t listen so much. And sometimes they’re not very responsive and wanting to give us results back and their thoughts on it … so they were a very lively bunch so they were helpful with that kind of stuff so I thought it was really good day.

NARR (Ava): After the taste testing, students have the option of eating chicken tenders for lunch if they’re still hungry. As students munch on them, I’m curious to hear what they have to say about the whole experience.

NARR (Ava): What do you like most about being here?

Sadie (student): That you get to try new things that you haven’t had before and some of the things you’ve had before just in a different way. I feel really nice that they’re thinking about us. I just want to say thank you to them for letting us go here

Athena (student): Right now, I think it’s wonderful seeing the back story and how it was. I didn’t really like school lunch before. I always wanted home lunch, but now I think school lunch is better.

NARR (Ava): Some students are grateful to Elsa.

Athena: I just want to again thank Elsa for bringing us here because she’s the cause of this whole trip

Benson (student): This is a very good experience to be tasting foods for the New York City public schools. And I really appreciate the letter that she made. And maybe I’ll make a letter, too.

Alex: What would your letter say?

Benson 2: To bring fried chicken to the menu.

NARR (Ava): Before reporting this story, I had no idea that there was a process where the DOE listened to students’ voices and opinions about food. I find it exciting that officials are really listening to what students have to say on a micro and macro level — and it’s sweet to know that 4th graders still write letters.

HOST (Sanaa): That was PS Weekly Reporter, Ava Stryker-Robbins … Next up, we leave the school food test kitchen and head to a real one… after a short break.

MIDROLL: We hope you’re enjoying listening to P.S. Weekly as much as we enjoy making it! We spend a lot of time after school planning each episode, setting up, and conducting interviews, cutting the tape, writing scripts. It’s a long process, and totally worth it. But here’s the thing: We don’t have a bunch of money or millions of followers. So we’re counting on you, loyal listener, to help us get the word out! So take a few seconds, and send this link wherever you’re listening to three friends so they, too, can enjoy P.S. weekly. Thanks for your support!

Segment A2: Food

HOST (Sanaa): So: what do students think about the school lunches these days in a real cafeteria? Our reporter Jose Santana has the story.

NARR (Jose): It’s Plant Powered Friday Friday and I’m at the Bronx Latin High School cafeteria during their lunch period. The menu posted in the cafeteria says there should be a vegan kidney bean rajma, vegan cucumber salad, and vegan flatbread. But today, I see only one option on student trays and it’s not vegan: grilled cheese. And the students were not happy about the lunch that was served…

Justin (student): I’m not gonna lie, they’re kinda bad, and particularly the grilled cheese, uh, the cheese isn’t really that melted, I’ll just say that. It isn’t really grilled, you know.

Lambryann (student): Yeah, um, it’s very nasty. Like, it’s so soggy. The quality is not qualiting.

Joseph (student): We got a grilled cheese joint. Feel me? Um, it’s not the best, but it ain’t the worst. Give it a 5.7 out of 10.

Marcus (student): I say this is like a good 6 out of 10. 6 out of 10? Yeah, that’s solid.

NARR (Jose): So typically, do they only have one option? Like in terms of variety?

Justin: Yeah, I mean sometimes they’ll have two at most but mostly it’s pretty bad and we don’t really have a lot of options like they’ve been literally having mozzarella sticks for like two weeks straight. Like we only been having mozzarella sticks. We haven’t had a variety of choices. So it’s been kind of bad.

Jose: Like mozzarella sticks every day?

Justin: Every single day.

Jose: That’s crazy.

Franklin: I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s been the same thing every day, every week. I haven’t seen no change. I know there’s a chart over there, but that chart, The chart is not relating to what’s being given out. Cause they be giving the same thing every day, every week, the same food. I’m tired of the mozzarella sticks and the dumplings. It’s the same thing.

Lambryann: We just been getting mozzarella sticks with that nasty (expletive) marinara sauce and cold, hard peanut butter and jelly.

Jose: Okay, so I don’t know if you guys know but the mayor is forcing schools to make every Friday vegan food. What do you guys think about that?

Ethan (student): Me personally, I don’t like vegan food.  feel like they should give us a option of like, like different like, like stations of vegan and then non vegan.

Justin: My thoughts about it is, if you want to promote health, that’s cool, but also give the kids what they like as well, you know?

Joseph: I love my vegans, but come on now, get some meat on the menu.

Jose: Have you noticed like any other students react certain ways with like the food or any, like, stories or experiences?

Justin: I mean, absolutely. I’ve seen, uh, I’ve seen people literally complain and ask the lunch ladies here, like, what’s the problem? I’ve seen people, um, literally just grab a tray, maybe take an apple or something, and then just throw the food out cause they only want one thing and you can’t get one thing without getting the other. So, it’s just a total waste of food.

Joseph: Yeah. I ain’t gonna lie. They’d be picking up the food and throwing it out cause that [expletive] is [expletive]. They be like, playing around with it, turning it into a piece of, throwing it at each other.

Lambryann: I done witnessed people go on line and then like come like literally to the end of the line, open their food, see what it is, and just go straight to the garbage because it looks so unappetizing.

Jose: So how does that affect you, like, coming to school, you’re expecting lunch, and then you’re disappointed?

Lambryann: It affects me because, when you’re really hungry, like, you know, you can feel physical pain or like a headache, especially that you’re in school all day. You need energy, and like, food, which is fuel for your body. And like, when you come here, you think, oh, at least a decent breakfast or a decent lunch. No, everybody’s just starving.

Franklin: And I feel like it’s really affecting us and how we do in class for real. Cause, you know what you eat really makes you what you are.

Joseph: School on an empty stomach is not valid, bro, at all. Feel me?

Jose: So what do you think could be improved, if anything?

Justin: I think what could be improved is maybe give like more of like an option type choice like maybe um, not only grilled cheese, but there’s so many other things you could do like maybe rice and like just other options. You don’t have to just have things that people don’t really like and enjoy.

Danny: Everything could be improved, you know, like nothing’s perfect, you know. The food is just like straight like mid, you know. Could be worse, could be better.

Lambryann: If they just, like, spent more time cooking the food, than just warming it up, and put more effort into making the food, it would actually be good. Like, it’d just be looking like they just slapped a piece of bread on a plate and called it a day, you know?

NARR (Jose): We reached out to an Assistant Principal of the Bronx Latin High School, Ms. Anna Nelson, to ask why the menu didn’t match what the students are actually offered for lunch. And she had this to say…

Ms. Nelson: So, what I have learned from the past is that the DOE has a menu, and that when schools are ordering, some of the menu options might not be available, and they’re given alternative options to order. And so even if it’s on the DOE menu, when they go into place to order, it might basically be like, we’re all out of this item, like, they have a limited number of whatever the item is. And so our school has to substitute it with another item.

NARR (Jose): Thank you to Lambryann Acevedo, Joseph Cruz, Ethan Leon, Franklyn Lora, Marcus Maisonet, Danny Martinez, and Justin Rivera for speaking with P.S. Weekly.

HOST (Sanaa): Once again, that was Jose Santana.

HOST (Sanaa): So far, we’ve focused on school cafeteria food, but a lot of students across the city bring their lunch to school. For our final story today, reporter Santana Roach looks into an equity issue that impacts those students: Microwaves.

Segment B: Microwaves

HOST (Sanaa): Heating things up for P.S. Weekly, here’s Santana…

NARR Santana: Do you have access to a microwave at your school?

Student 1: Well, not really…

Adjanae (Student): When I bring my cup of noodles and I’m not allowed to use a microwave, it aggravates me.

STUDENT 1: You can maybe ask a teacher permission for it and they might be like, yeah, you can use it like, because it’s really close to them.

NARR Santana: So what is it like to not have access to a microwave?

STUDENT 2: It was not too long ago, and I brung noodles. And I asked like 3 teachers and they wouldn’t let me use it. And I started crying and I called my mom.

NARR (Santana): I’m here at my school Frederick Douglass Academy II, talking to students about a very specific dilemma that I can relate to… See, I don’t always want to eat the school lunch and not to scrutinize it, but the combinations are sometimes–questionable…  I started to think about having my mom’s home-cooked meals for lunch.

NARR (Santana): But to do that, I need a microwave. And many schools in the city don’t have a microwave available for student use.

NARR (Santana): So, this may come as a surprise to some of you listening to this show, but we students often resort to asking our teachers or counselors to heat our food. We have to go to their office and bother them while they’re working to make the request. And some students are more comfortable doing that than others.

NARR (Santana): It’s a nuisance for both teachers, and for students.

Mr. Afriyie:  I know many students. Have come to me during lunchtime, or found others looking to heat food up. And they find their way. I think there, there’s access definitely in the building to microwaves.

NARR (Santana):  This is my principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie. Even HE has had to experience this annoying dance.

NARR (Santana):  A simple solution would be to give the students access to their own microwave.

NARR (Santana):  So, why don’t students have access to a communal microwave?

Mr. Afriyie: Having a microwave down in the cafeteria has never been an official request from students. Um, so I think possibly that it’s not something that we have like deeply explored about how to make that work.

NARR (Santana):  So, perhaps this issue of microwave access is simply an issue students haven’t brought up.

NARR (Santana): Students at Beacon High School also had a similar problem… And guess what… their PTA donated their students a microwave a few years ago.

Kelli: Yes, the Beacon PTA purchased a microwave for students -- maybe 2 years ago. It was placed in the cafeteria for student use.

NARR (Santana): This is Kelli Henry, Beacon’s PTA Co-Vice President.

NARR (Santana): I spoke with my fellow PS Weekly producer Bernie Carmona, who happens to be a student at Beacon–and occasionally in need of a microwave.

Santana: A couple of weeks ago I asked you to investigate to see whether or not there was a microwave in your cafeteria.

Bernie: I went to the cafeteria all the way in the back all the way in the corner, that’s where the microwave is.

Santana: So Bernie, how great is it to have a microwave? Because you know, my school doesn’t have free access to a microwave.

Bernie: Yeah, I know that like kids from other schools don’t have access to these microwaves. I think it’s very convenient for me. Mainly because I have left overs from home sometimes. And I think just bringing that to school and having the access to go to the cafeteria and it being there for me to use whenever I want. Having free access to a microwave will definitely come with managing and creating new rules for students that want to use the microwave.

NARR (Santana):  I went back to Mr. Afriyie, to tell him about the Beacon students and their PTA-bought microwave, to see what he thought and whether he would consider providing one for our school.

Mr. Afriyie: So we would have to figure out like, how we would actually acquire one. And then we’d also have to discuss some of the safety protocols. Right? If it’s not used properly, it can cause some significant damage or injury or whatnot. So we have to have to look into all of that  as well as protocols around how to clean it, and maintain it? Who brings it out? That it’s being used and maintained in a way that everyone can have a consistent and quality access to it. If that is something that our student council wants us to pursue, then we would look into see how we could make that work.

NARR (Santana):  Huh, it’s interesting that the only reason why we haven’t had a microwave–is because we haven’t thought to officially ask– even though we have been directly asking teachers to use theirs.

NARR (Santana): Perhaps this sounds like a trivial issue. But students–especially students with dietary needs–might need access to a working microwave.

NARR (Santana): I plan to continue advocating for a microwave to be placed in my school, and I hope some of you who face similar issues take action and speak up about them too …it might be easier than you thought.

HOST (Sanaa): Thanks for listening to this episode. I’d say my fellow reporters ate. Students: we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences related to school food. Have a story to share? Email us at pseekly@chalkbeat.org.

And P.S.: We’re back next Wednesday with an episode about mental health that you don’t want to miss.

Preview P.S Weekly episode 8 CLIP:

Derry: “It was like because of her like fear or anxiety, or like her trauma, like because of it, it’s holding me back from having possibly a better experience, and so she never allowed us to take that leap of faith, for that reason, it just made me very angry throughout the years where I wasn’t able to properly get help.”

HOST: Until then… class dismissed!

CREDITS

HOST (Sanaa): PS Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat, made possible by generous support from The Pinkerton Foundation, The Summerfield Foundation, FJC, and Hindenburg Systems.

This episode was hosted by me, Sanaa Stokes.

Producers for this episode were: Ava Stryker-Robbins, Jose Santana, AND Santana Roach, with reporting help from Chalkbeat reporter Alex Zimmerman.

Our marketing lead this week was Sabrina DuQuesnay.

Our executive producer for the show is JoAnn DeLuna.

Santana: Executive editors include Amy Zimmer AND Taylor McGraw.

Additional production and reporting support was provided by Sabrina DuQuesnay, Mira Gordon, and our friends at Chalkbeat.

Special thanks to our interns Miriam Galicia  and  Makenna Turner and our friends at chalkbeat.

A big shout out to our mentors!

Music from Blue Dot Sessions.

And the jingle you heard at the beginning of this episode was created by the one and only: Erica Huang.

Thanks for tuning in! See you next time!

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