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MUNSTER — Gone are the days of the chicken nugget and onion ring-focused school lunch. Basil tofu, Asian wheat berry salad and Korean chicken bulgogi are now gracing the Munster High School cafeteria.

The creative cuisines came to Munster this week by way of food service provider Chartwells K12’s national Student Choice program.

Students and teachers alike flooded the high school’s commons area Wednesday to try turkey reuben, and mozzarella and tomato panini samples. The day before brought Nashville hot, teriyaki pineapple and honey mustard barbecue sandwich samples. And Thursday, the final day of tasting, students tried Chartwells’ Asian brown rice, tofu and bulgogi — a barbecue sesame marinated chicken dish.

“Most of us are old enough to remember when school food was not the way to go,” said Malaika Jenkins, a regional market manager for Chartwells. “We don’t want it to be ‘this is just school food.’ We want them to have an experience.”

Munster is one of 10 schools in Indiana to take part in the Student Choice program, which was introduced at Calumet New Tech High School last spring. Beginning last year, Chartwells has rolled out the program, which seeks to bring a student voice to lunch offerings in 150 schools across the country.

On Friday, students will vote on their favorite of three thematic food concepts — the chicken-based Roost, the cheese-heavy Made to Melt or the Asian-inspired Bok Choy.

The winning concept will be served in Munster High School lunches for the next four to six weeks.

Chartwells offered concept samples throughout this week in the school commons, and full-sized meals of each day’s sample for purchase in the cafeteria.

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“We want to to talk do the kids who do eat to see what we can do to make things better and the kids that don’t eat to see how we can bring them into the cafeteria,” Jenkins said.

While the structured Student Choice program was a first for Munster, Tanera Winter, director of food services for the School Town of Munster, said she’s been seeking student input since she started working at the school this fall after Chartwells and Munster school began a new food service contract.

Winters said she turned to the Munster Student Council before introducing a new spinach feta pizza to see if it was something students would like. She said she's worked in Munster school cafeterias on multiple occasions to bring students samples of lunches a day or two in advanced so they are less intimidated to try a complete dish outside of their comfort zone.

“I like how they have samples so you know what to get later on,” freshman Vanessa Vasquez said. “I normally eat in one section because I don’t know what other sections offer or what they taste like, so it’s nice to taste what it’s like before I go get it.”

Vasquez sampled the tomato and mozzarella panini of the Roost concept Wednesday.

Taking a bite, Vasquez said, “I’m not even a tomato fan, and I like this."

Munster plans to continue with the Student Choice program, Winters said, introducing a new round of samples in several weeks. Other concepts in the Chartwells offers include a build-your-own sandwich, burger and pasta station and Latin and Mexican cuisines.

“It’s cool that the students get to decide what we eat,” senior Leila Damianos said. “It’s like real food, not like frozen chicken patties that schools usually serve, or crappy pizza.”

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.