When freshman Michael Gehrke ordered a fish sandwich for lunch Wednesday in the cafeteria of Frontier High School, he didn’t bank on all the attention it would attract. After all, fish is not a favorite food among most teenagers.
“I’ll give you part of my cheeseburger,” offered best friend Kevin Crosta.
“Be a man,” urged another classmate.
“Just shove it in your mouth,” said his sister Colleen, a sophomore.
When Michael finally took a bite of the fish sandwich, he gave it a passing grade.
“It’s not really that bad, but it’s not really that good,” said the 14-year-old. “It’s all right.”
The effort to integrate more nutritious food items into the menus of school cafeterias throughout the country gained momentum with first lady Michele Obama’s campaign for healthy school lunches.
Wednesday, the food service staff at Frontier Central Schools took a page from the Obama cookbook by introducing a kid-friendly fish dish to its lunch lineup. The Alaskan Pollack fillet breaded with a sweet potato coating appeared in two offerings: a fish sandwich and a fish waffle snack sandwich.
“We’re trying to get the kids used to eating fish,” said Susan Birmingham, food service manager for the Frontier Central School District. “Fish is a high-protein choice, plus we bake everything here. There are no fryers, so it’s not like going out for a fish fry on a Friday night.”
“Sa-Weet” Potato Crusted Seafood from Viking combines sweet potatoes with cinnamon and nutmeg to tempt the taste buds of teenagers who would live on pizza and wings if given the choice.
Judging from the high school’s first lunch seating – a 40-minute period starting at 9:40 a.m. – the new fish dish is holding its own. Of 130 lunches sold, 65 were fish sandwiches, according to Patty Abbott, the school cook.
The high school, located on Bayview Road in the Town of Hamburg, was the first school in the Frontier district to preview the fish. Wednesday, the breaded fish sandwich was the main lunch option. Alternatives were hamburgers, cheeseburgers, salads and sandwiches.
Celebrity chef Marco Suarez, who has appeared on the Food Network show “Chopped,” visited the school to help unveil the fish product. A development chef for High Liner Foods – the company distributing Sa-Weet and other varieties of frozen seafood – Suarez said a big part of his job is to make fish appealing to youth.
“How do you get kids to eat fish?” he said. “Make it fun.” He pointed to one of his creations, the fish waffle sandwich, which was a big hit with the high school students who were served samples at their tables.
The specialty sandwich featured a piece of fish and some coleslaw between two whole wheat waffles drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
“The powdered sugar and syrup trick their brains into thinking they want to eat it,” said Suarez. “Powdered sugar is deceiving because you use a little, but it looks like a lot.”
Alysa Cole and Alyssa Young, both age 15 and sophomores, each opted for a fish waffle sandwich in the cafeteria. Cole, wearing green nail polish, and Young – whose nails were painted her school colors of blue and white – loved the snack.
“It’s actually good,” Cole said. “It’s a lot better than school food.”
Suarez, 31, traveled from Boston. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he demonstrated some of his skills in the school’s newly renovated home and careers classroom. After filleting a 10-pound salmon before the students, he showed them how to make fish tacos, which they later ate.
As Suarez worked, he talked about food and health.
“Before you purchase a fish,” Suarez noted, “look into its eyes. If you see a white cloud in the eye, you don’t want it. That fish has been out of the ocean too long.
“Salmon is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids,” Suarez said. “A 6 oz. portion of fish a week reduces your chances of heart disease by 30 percent.”