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learning curve

Fenway High ‘test kitchen’ cooks up districtwide menu changes

Carmen Thomas served students food from the test kitchen at Fenway High.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2015
Carmen Thomas served students food from the test kitchen at Fenway High.

The Globe is taking a year-long look at promising practices to address a range of social, emotional, and cultural issues in Massachusetts public schools that could be affecting classroom achievement. The series is being produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, with funding by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. To see previous coverage, click here.

A test kitchen set up at Fenway High School this year to try out new lunch items is slowly transforming cuisine across the school system, as part of an effort to expand more healthful food options for students.

Overall, chefs in the test kitchen, which is run in partnership with the antihunger organization Project Bread, have tried out more than three dozen recipes. Sixteen dishes approved by Fenway High students in taste testings are now featured routinely on that school’s menus. Five of them — including chicken and spinach quesadillas and baked potatoes topped with broccoli, beef, and cheese — have been introduced to other Boston schools that operate their own kitchens.

The effort reached another notable milestone last week as the student taste tests for the first time branched out to other schools. On Thursday, students at East Boston High School sampled spicy bites of chicken curry, and in the coming weeks students at McCormack Middle School in Dorchester and Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury will have the chance to scoop them up.

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“We are just thrilled to watch the evolution of this project at Fenway,” said Kim Rice, assistant superintendent of operations for the Boston Public Schools. “It is doing exactly what we wanted it to do.”

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The test kitchen — whose creation was chronicled by the Globe last fall — has a daunting task: chefs must devise healthful school lunches that students will actually want to eat and that cost just $1.44 a serving to make. The meals must also comply with strict federal nutritional requirements, which restrict the use of salt, butter, and other ingredients that can boost taste.

Adding to the challenge, the school system has asked the chefs to come up with a slate of offerings palatable to a districtwide student population that represents about 100 nationalities.

“You have to let students be the ones who decide if a dish goes on the menu,” said Guy Koppe, a chef with Project Bread.

Meeting the multiple challenges often means a recipe needs to be repeatedly reworked because it doesn’t pass muster with students or with experts from the food service department, who must ensure the dishes meet federal nutritional standards and can be easily replicated at a low cost at other cafeterias. That can include ease of preparation.

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“For example, if we have a recipe that requires coconut milk or fresh ginger, that may not be a realistic ingredient to buy for all schools” because of the cost, said Deborah Ventricelli, the school system’s deputy director of food and nutrition services.

She also said the school system needs to consider whether a recipe created in the newly built Fenway kitchen, which features state-of-the-art equipment, can be easily prepared in the system’s other kitchens that are decades old.

Recipes tried out at Fenway High include pollock vera cruz (Mexican); chicken biryani (Indian); Caribbean glazed chicken; Asian noodle bowl; Mexican street corn; and Moroccan stew. This month, chefs will attempt a falafel platter.

“It’s important to build success first before taking a giant leap out to other schools,” Koppe said.

Ellen Parker, executive director for Project Bread, emphasized that overhauling school menus takes a team effort, involving everyone from administrators to students to cafeteria workers.

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“We never thought we could send a chef into a school kitchen and fix the food issues,” Parker said.

Fenway High and Project Bread began pursuing a partnership over a year ago. Initially, the school wanted to break away from the district’s food service program, which had been hamstrung by multimillion dollar deficits and budget cuts, and hire its own kitchen staff and create its own menus.

But in a series of meetings with school district leaders, the conversation eventually turned to the idea of using Fenway High as a test kitchen to overhaul menus districtwide.

Boston school officials say the partnership will continue into the next school year.

“We thought we would go through recipes quicker than we did, but in a good way Project Bread and my staff made sure these were recipes that would be acceptable and would work at other schools,” Ventricelli said. “We will continue to roll out the recipes to the other schools.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.