By Brian Messenger
METHUEN — Students flooded the cafeteria at Marsh Grammar School, their excited chatter picking up volume as the food lines simultaneously grew longer.
It was a typical lunchroom scene, but this wasn't your typical lunch period.
Important decisions loomed for the 500 students expected to take part in a blind taste test to determine which pizza will be served at all Methuen schools starting next fall.
With 750 slices at the ready, students were more than up to the challenge.
"Let's taste some pizza!" exclaimed seventh-grader Sean Lowey, 12.
The taste test was organized by Wayne Vespa, Methuen's director of school nutrition services, in anticipation of what he called an "overhaul" of school lunch menus next year.
From chocolate milk to bread products, Vespa said new nutritional guidelines will alter what is served in Methuen's school cafeterias. Specifically with pizza, he said the crust must be made from at least 51 percent whole grain instead of the white flour currently used. Stricter limits on sodium will also be enforced, he said.
Typically, Vespa said, whole grain pizza is a tougher sell to students. And though he believes the menu changes may lead to a short-term drop in participation in the school lunch program, Vespa said they are all geared toward increasing student health.
"I think it's worthy," said Vespa. "Some of the things we're just going to have to change."
Students had their choice from three pizza vendors yesterday: Pizzeria Uno, Big Daddy's — a Schwan Food Company product — and Wild Mike's out of California.
The slices were labeled only by a marking on the plate. After trying all three samples, students turned in the plate from their favorite to taste test organizers.
Many students interviewed preferred the slices labelled with a black "X" on the plate — the same pizza that won a taste test at Methuen High School last month.
"I'd get pizza every day if it was this," said Codey Kaczynski, 12.
The same slices were the unanimous choice of friends Molly Teece, Alayna Tivnan, Emily Fleming and Ravyn Dallaire. The girls liked the sweet sauce and soft crust.
"Since kindergarten, we've had the same pizza every year," said Teece.
"It's better than what we've had," added Dallaire.
Vespa said the taste test winner will be announced next week.
"I want this to be their decision," said Vespa. "If the kids won't eat it, what good is it? ... They have a voice. I think, ultimately, they are enjoying this."
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