For many people, when one showed up to the school cafeteria during lunch, there were two options — to eat what was being served or to go hungry for the rest of the day.

Last week at East Burke High School, students had the luxury of deciding what they want to have on the menu for the rest of the year, as the school’s dining service is holding a three-day “student’s choice” competition where students vote on their favorite lunch meals.

Chartwells K-12 is the dining service that Burke County Public Schools contracts for its students and staff. Each day had a unique concept, according to Yasmine Wright, senior marketing specialist with Chartwells K-12 for BCPS.

“Tuesday we offered a ‘market fresh’ theme,” Wright said. “This featured gourmet type of salads. On Wednesday we had an Asian food concept and we served bok choy. Thursday’s theme is ‘the roost’ and we are serving two types of chicken sandwiches: teriyaki and classic.”

Each day’s winner made it to the final round, where students voted on a winner Friday. The student’s choice winner will then be featured on the menu for the rest of the year. Tuesday’s winner was a strawberry chicken salad, while Wednesday’s winner was a fried rice dish.

Throughout the four lunch periods, students walked up to Chartwells K-12 staff and submitted their votes through Chartwells K-12 staff members’ iPads and laptops.

“We’re using a polling system through a website,” said Aaron Probst, senior director of dining services Chartwells K-12 for BCPS. “We have two tables where the students can tell us which sandwich they prefer. Then, we have one of our laptops set up that is keeping track of how many votes each of the sandwiches is receiving as we go along.”

In addition to applying a student-centered method in their work, Chartwells aims to offer more nutritional choices while not compromising on flavor. Based on the students’ reactions to the student’s choice program, this tactic leaves students feeling satisfied, she said.

“The students have liked it a lot,” Wright said. “At first they were a little confused about what it was but after the first day, they were like, ‘so y’all are coming back tomorrow with different stuff? Oh, great.’ So it’s been really good.”

The first student’s choice Chartwells held in BCPS was Patton High School in September. The competition is a representation of the student-centered approach Chartwells has applied in its work with schools, Wright said.

“We’re doing a lot more in the schools,” Wright said. “We are more student-focused. (We ask the students) what they want from us. We’re not going to shove food in your face and say, ‘You have to like it.’ We want to sit down and talk to them.”

This student-focused mentality includes meeting with focus groups of elementary school students, according to Wright.

“After school or during school, we will get a group of students from each grade and just sit down with them and ask them what we can do better,” Wright said. “(We want) to be a better food service for them. So, we have a youth advisory committee at the elementary schools and we do sampling with them. While the student choice is only offered to high school and middle school students, the youth advisory boards do the sampling with them as well.”

The teachers choose students for the youth advisory committee based on the level of social interaction the student typically engages in, and then the Chartwells staff conducts meetings with the groups.

The student’s choice competition is one of a host of programs Chartwells is offering at local schools — EBHS recently opened a coffee shop called StarBurke’s, which will soon offer mobile ordering for students and staff. A grand opening for the coffee shop will take place within the next three weeks.

Until then, students will be content to hold their lunch destiny in their own hands.

“We keep it healthy, but tasty,” Wright said.

Johnny Casey is a staff writer and can be reached at jcasey@morganton.com or 828-432-8907.

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