“I hate them.”
These sentiments are from elementary students around Tallahassee who aren’t fans of their school’s vegetables.
“I cannot think that they’re actually real.”
“Our vegetables don’t taste real and they look like green spaghetti.”
Fortunately, not all of their peers agree.
Today, kids at Ruediger Elementary School are getting broccoli and bananas on their plates. They have other options, too.
“I take the salad and I take the fruit,” 11-year-old Shaniya Storey said. “I eat most of the carrots off the salad.”
Federal school meal requirements are being phased in around Florida.
Kids who buy lunch in the cafeteria must take a fruit or a vegetable whether they want it or not.
“Sometimes if they had broccoli, yeah, I’d eat it,” 5th grader Ja’quan Petersen said, “but most of the time I would throw it away.”
School Chef Michelle Ross’ job is to get the kids not to throw it away. She creates tastier versions of healthy food, like carrot soufflé or her latest experiment – corn salad.
“Then I go out and actually ask the kids, ‘what did you think?’ Ross said.
“I teach them to not say it’s yucky, it’s icky, it’s gross or anything like that. But what they say if they do not like it is ‘it’s not to my taste,’ and that’s okay.”
At the start of this school year, Florida made changes as part of the National School Lunch Program. All school menus now feature more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Students are required to take one half-cup serving of a fruit or a vegetable. If they want, they can take both.
Schools Nutrition Services Director Cathy Reed said kids are given a choice of healthy options.
“We don’t want to force kids to take things that they don’t have to take because more than likely, they’re not going to eat it,” Reed said. “Kids will eat usually what they are allowed to take themselves.”
The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act led to federal dietary guidelines that are being phased in over the next decade. The standards include limits on sodium, fat, and calories. Starting in two years, school breakfasts must also include a serving of a fruit or vegetable.
Reed said the students still need to be taught why their meals are changing, especially since many of them don’t get vegetables at home.
“They don’t see them but in the cafeteria, so how do we get them to eat them? We’ve got to educate the kids that this food is good for them, that they need to select the food, they need to eat the food, and we’re not there yet,” Reed said.
Nineteen produce items are being featured in cafeterias right now, according to Outreach Manager Jackie Moalli with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We’ve developed curriculum around certain items that the teachers can use in the classrooms prior to those items being featured that week in the cafeteria,” Moalli said, “because research has shown that when children learn about the food that they’re eating, they’re more likely to try it.”
In addition to studying the foods in class, students may see posters in the cafeteria with pictures and fun facts about the vegetables they’re eating. Some schools even offer food-tastings to try to make it fun, and menu planners try to make the dishes as colorful and appetizing as possible.
Rick Parks, the state’s lead dietitian, says — just like in fine dining — presentation is important.
“Often times we look at the bottom line and maybe it’s a little dried out or burnt or something to that effect. ‘Oh, they’ll eat it,’ you know. Well, would you eat it? So, it’s looking at lots of things, not only the taste, but I think you have to first look at the appearance of the foods,” Parks said.
At Ruediger Elementary, Chef Ross uses lots of ingredients grown in the school’s garden with help from students. She hopes they’ll eventually be able to take home vegetables they helped grow.
“Then you can have your daughter bring home a bell pepper from the garden that she helped out with. I mean, how encouraging it is for a child,” Ross said. “You grew this, now we’re going to chop it up and now we’re going to have it for dinner tonight.”
Ross said inviting kids into the growing process will make a positive difference in their diets.
We’ll have more this week on new nutrition standards in schools.