The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

Malden Fourth-Graders: Food Critics for a Day!


There are a lot of cool perks that come with this job.

Free food samples, being recognized when I’m out and about – “Hey, you’re The Food Guy!” – the occasional, though always unsolicited, special treatment in restaurants. But when it comes to true rewards, it doesn’t get more fulfilling than this …

Last week I got to spend an afternoon at Malden Elementary, where fourth-graders had invited me to come talk about what it’s like to get paid for eating for a living – and how they can grow up to do something equally exciting.

School counselor Ditty Markham said the idea of me visiting came about when one boy in class, Tyler Hudson, expressed an interest in growing up to be a food critic some day. But when quizzed about their future career plans, most of the children had limited ideas of what types of jobs were even possible.

They tended to cite jobs that, to them, seemed to pay really good salaries, but were actually on the low end of the scale. We wanted to let them know there are not only higher-paying options out there, but that they could also look for jobs where they get paid to do something they’re truly passionate about.

For me, that’s food and cooking, so over the course of a few hours I talked to them about my role at the newspaper and other job opportunities in the journalism field and beyond. I also fielded a wide variety of questions.

They asked about everything from my best meal ever (The French Laundry) to my favorite chain restaurant (maybe Olive Garden). They wanted to know about the foods I hate (beets and peas) and some of the strangest things I’ve eaten. I answered that one by explaining the delicacy of soft-shell crabs, since they’re in season, but in retrospect they would’ve gotten a much bigger kick out of the rattlesnake nuggets I munched on in Arizona.

They were equally excited to talk about the foods they love and hate, the restaurants they can’t get enough of, even the meals they cook at home. (Austin Stephenson, I want to try some of those pancakes!)

Then they invited me to join them for lunch in the school cafeteria, after which we could come back to the classroom and discuss how we’d go about writing an actual restaurant critique of the meal we just had.

With visions of awesome cafeteria lunches dancing in my head, I jumped at the chance to sink my teeth into some savory Salisbury steak and gravy or spaghetti with meat sauce or warm-from-the-oven pepperoni rolls.

“What’s on the menu?” I asked with excitement.

“Cook’s Choice,” they replied.

So we settled in for ham, turkey and cheese sub sandwiches with Baked Lays, fresh watermelon and a salad bar. In reviewing the meal afterward, we decided it was not bad overall but we did have a few suggestions for improvement:

  • The sandwiches were a little skimpy, so a better selection of toppings to jazz them up would’ve been nice. Pickles were a popular suggestion, and I would’ve paid good money for a packet of mayonnaise.
  • The watermelon was a hit, but some students wondered if there should be a couple of fruits to choose from, maybe some sliced peaches or chunks of pineapple.
  • And we all thought the salad bar could use a little love. Especially with several kids not touching their sandwiches – or only plucking the slice of cheese from them – a salad bar with more options would help ensure they could find enough food to fill them up. There was lettuce, tomato, cucumber and peppers, but no broccoli, cauliflower or other veggies to add bulk. A simple pasta salad would also offer a good second entrée option for those not liking the day’s main dish.

On a scale of 1 to 10, some loved it and others hated it, so we averaged out at around a 5 or 6.

Malden drawing
Malden Elementary fourth-grader Kimberly Legg gave me this awesome drawing she made herself!

As the invited guest, I politely scored it a 7, reminding the class that you always have to judge a restaurant with realistic expectations. You’re not going to get a Chop House experience at a McDonald’s booth, so be sure to pass judgment accordingly.

“Our cooks may never forgive you for producing about 40 critics who now think they are qualified to judge them each day on presentation, taste, quality and quantity of food, ambiance, etc.,” Markham said.


But I hope they take it all in stride, because this was the most enjoyable day at “work” I’ve had in a long time. And these kids couldn’t have been more interested, appreciative and well-behaved! They gave me hugs, took photos, asked if they could sit with me at lunch and one girl even gave me a picture she had drawn. (Thanks, Kimberly Legg. It’s hanging up in my office!)

“Steven, thanks so much for visiting Malden Elementary. Our fourth-graders really enjoyed learning from you,” Ditty wrote in a follow-up note after the event. “If you are not in a school every day, you probably can’t appreciate the significance of 10-year-olds who were attentive listeners and participants for over two hours. It is rare that anyone holds their interest for over 30 minutes. So, give yourself a pat on the back.”

Actually, Ditty, with three boys at home I know all too well how challenging it is to harness youthful exuberance on a daily basis.

So the pat on the back goes to you and your students!

Malden Elementary fourth-graders
Katelynn, Dennie Lester, Steven Keith, Derek Carney, Makayla Walls
Malden Elementary fourth-graders
Austin Stevenson, Steven Keith, Tyler Hudson
Malden Elementary fourth-graders
Kendall Merrell, Hannah Symns, Amelia Ford, Hannah Fridley
Malden Elementary fourth-graders
Kimberly Legg, Madison Harmon, Hanna Ho, Steven Keith, Rayna Scott, Hailey Tagayun
Malden Elementary fourth-graders
Jorden Wooding, Steven Keith, Matthew Terry, Matthew Shannon, Jevon Booker








Healthier School Lunches Worth Fighting For

I’m sure you’ve heard about the big hullabaloo of late over the nutritional value of school lunches.

In one corner you have school officials and health advocates pushing for healthier meals; in the other, you have kids who won’t eat them and cooks frustrated over the new restrictions now placed on them.

Although I’m strongly entrenched in the “we need WAY healthier school lunches” camp, I do feel for both sides. Children need to eat and it’s criminal to watch so much uneaten food being thrown away. (I’ve dined in the cafeteria before and, I’m here to tell you, a LOT gets tossed each day.)

But instead of going back to hot dogs and “chicken-flavored” nuggets, I’d hope both sides could come together to reach a compromise.

There’s no question childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country, and our schools should be striving to help solve – not add to – the problem.

Get a load of these stats from a recent survey of 1,800 third through fifth graders in Texas:

  • 46% ate fast food two or more times per week.
  • Most did not understand that low-fat milk is a healthier choice than whole milk.
  • Many did not understand that baked potato chips were a healthier choice than french fries.
  • The majority incorrectly thought diet soda contained some sugar and sports drinks contained no sugar.
  • The majority of children knew that consuming excess calories can lead to weight gain, but fewer knew that excess calories can also lead to heart disease.

 But on a positive note:

  • 87% expressed an interest in helping choose healthy foods for their school cafeteria.
  • 88% reported that they would eat healthy breakfast items such as yogurt, oatmeal, fruit, granola and whole wheat toast if they were offered.
  • When presented with a sample menu, children were equally likely to choose healthier options in place of less healthier options. For example, a turkey sandwich over chicken nuggets and a fruit cup or steamed veggies over fries or tater tots.

 That’s progress, so we definitely need to keep pushing for more positive changes.

Hey, fellow foodies, here’s an event worth checking out!

“The Revolution Has Been Televised. Now What?”

Charleston native and former Daily Mail reporter Brent Cunningham will be in town later this month — along with his wife, former Washington Post food writer Jane Black — to discuss their upcoming book on the efforts to build a healthy food culture in Huntington. The event will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 22, in the library of Marshall University’s South Charleston Campus.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver put Huntington on the map through his Emmy-winning TV series, “Food Revolution,” that shed fascinating light on his efforts to serve healthier school lunches in Cabell County. Huntington was unceremoniously chosen as the site of the series because it had recently been named the unhealthiest city in America in some national ranking. (The series was eye-opening and, in my opinion, very well done, by the way. Netflix it if you missed it.)

Brent attended Marshall University and worked at the Charleston Daily Mail before moving on to write for The Nation, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Harvard’s Neiman Reports, among other publications. He is now Managing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, the national oldest journal of media criticism, and a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Jane now covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues and has written for the likes of the BBC, Businessweek Online, Boston Magazine, Food & Wine, The New York Times, Slate, Gourmet (may it R.I.P.) and Body & Soul. She attended the Leiths School of Food and Wine in London and her podcast, Smart Food, airs on Edible Radio.

Their new book is set to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013.

Come on out and hear what they have to say, welcome Brent back and toss a few hard questions his way. (I know him, he can handle it.)