This is good!" announced Benjamin Fennell, holding up the cheeseburger that he had dressed up with tomato, lettuce, ketchup and mustard.
It was a rare accolade for a school cafeteria burger, one that echoed around the Bryant Woods Elementary School cafeteria during "Better Burger Day" last week.
The usual school hamburgers are dry and "disgusting," said Laura Hirshfield, 10. It was Laura's idea that led to "Better Burger Day," the first of three special school lunch menus planned by a group of fifth-graders in Maria Allen's gifted and talented class.
The teacher had asked her students to think of a problem they could tackle. Laura discussed the assignment with her mother and happened to remark, "Well, nobody likes the school lunches."
The idea evolved into a project for five fifth-grade girls to see whether student preferences could be reflected in the menus and how cafeteria patrons would respond. Class members talked about the possibility that a better-tasting lunch might be less likely to end up in the garbage can -- but that was a side benefit, not the project's main thrust, Allen explained.
The "better burgers" drew praise for tasting better, being more filling and providing more variety than the usual hamburger.
For Benjamin, 11, a fifth-grader and regular buyer of the hamburger lunch, the cheese made the big difference. Jason Barry, 10, a fourth-grader, and Chris Wise, 10, a fifth-grader, agreed that cheese improved the overall flavor.
"It's not McDonald's or anything . . ," said Mary Slavionsky, 11, a fifth-grader, pausing to contemplate her cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato, "but it's definitely better."
The final results aren't in yet, but total lunch sales on "Better Burger Day" were up from an average of 180 to 202, and food service assistant Judy Sullivan said the special burgers "wiped out tacos," the competing selection.
Friday was "Pick Your Own Pizza" day, offering students a choice of pepperoni or the usual cheese pizza, and youngsters went for the pepperoni in droves.
"I had to ask if anything else was on the menu," Allen said with a laugh.
The final special menu is a salad bar scheduled May 20.
Students working on the project don't plan to try to measure reduced waste, but food services assistant Sullivan said her impression was that more food was consumed and less thrown away during the special burger day.
"They did great. They ate everything," she said.
The fifth-graders are surveying cafeteria patrons on each lunch shift during the special days, asking whether they usually buy the school lunch and whether they preferred the special menu. Initial results were unanimous for the special lunches, reported Casey Finnegan, 11, after surveying 13 students during one lunch shift.
"A lot of people said the [regular] burgers were flat and dry. [Today] they were juicy," Casey said.
The fifth-graders started their project with a schoolwide survey to find out what Bryant Woods students liked to eat at home and whether they liked the same foods in the school cafeteria. Survey choices included main dishes like turkey breast, lasagna, pizza, chicken nuggets, tacos and pot pie.
"Most of the things they liked at home but didn't like at the cafeteria," Laura said.
The fifth-graders worked with Mary Klatko, school system food services supervisor, to solve the problems. School system spokeswoman Patti P. Caplan said the students' suggested changes could be added to the regular school lunch menu if tests show that students across the county also prefer "better burgers" and pizza choices.
Even if the menu can't be altered on regular basis, the occasional special menus "will be a legacy you can leave the school," Allen told her students.
For Ashana Allen, 10, the project has been a lesson in empowerment.
"I learned that you can make changes in certain things and you can make things better," she said.