Kids love pizza. But would they love it if it were smothered with prune sauce? That’s a question the folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been pondering recently. As facilitator of the National School Lunch Program, the USDA buys produce from America’s farmers and gives or sells it to school food- service workers. Thus, the department is a prime target for fruit and veggie industry reps, who lobby the USDA with inventive, yet nutritious, fare. The agency’s marketing service periodically invites some of the toughest critics around—kids—to sample and rate these recipes on criteria such as color, smell, and taste. Why go through all this trouble? If the agency is going to spend taxpayer dollars on a commodity, explains marketing representative George Chartier, “we want to make sure foods aren’t going to end up in the garbage, that kids are really going to eat them.”
This past spring, 118 K-6 students from the Los Angeles and Capistrano school districts in California got the chance to dish on a dozen or so new items. Turns out, 57 percent of these testers deemed the prune pizza “very good” overall—not bad for a meal made from what fruit farmers prefer to call “dried plums.”
Here’s what they had to say about some other new foods that could be coming to a cafeteria near you.
SWEET POTATO PANCAKES
The Dish: A golden yellow pancake a bit larger than a silver dollar.
Rating: 83 percent of students rated it very good; 95 percent said they’d choose to eat it again.
Reviews: Jennifer Holladay and Maria Gutierrez, 4th graders at Del Obispo Elementary in Capistrano, say the pancakes’ “cinnamony taste” won them over. “All the kids liked them,” says Bill Caldwell, director of food and nutrition services for the school district. “Their eyes lit up when they talked about them. Adults, kids ate them—even without syrup.”
ALMOND DATE BAR
The Dish: An almond date paste sandwiched between two graham crackers with a bit of chocolate drizzled on top.
Rating: 78 percent of students rated it very good; 88 percent would indulge in the dessert again.
Reviews: Jennifer, Maria, and classmate Joey Brooks-Gonzalez each give this tasty dessert two thumbs up. Jennifer likes the chocolate drizzled on top, and Maria favors the almonds. Joey pays it a high compliment, saying it tastes “like candy.”
CRANBERRY BARBECUE SAUCE
The Dish: A mild dipping sauce served with nugget-size pieces of chicken.
Rating: 78 percent of students rated it very good; 84 percent would pick it up off the lunch line to eat again.
Reviews: Joey says, “I liked it. . . . It wasn’t spicy.” Del Obispo’s principal, Faith Dennis, who frequents her school’s cafeteria a few times a week, voices her approval for the sauce’s unconventional flavor, citing “a good balance of sweet and tart.”
The Dish: The traditional meat patty juiced up with cherries and served on a bun.
Rating: 37 percent of students rated it very good; 60 percent of students said they’d give it a second whirl.
Reviews: The fruity hamburger tasted “normal,” even “a little better” than a traditional burger, says Maria. And though the students were surprised when the ingredients were revealed, the gross-out factor was low. “It was funny. I didn’t think they could make those,” says Jennifer.
SPICY ASPARAGUS GUACAMOLE
The Dish: Asparagus replaces avocado in this guacamole, which is stuffed into a turkey wrap that also features lettuce and tomato.
Rating: 28 percent of students rated it very good; an unimpressive 43 percent would be willing to eat it again.
Reviews: Asparagus guacamole bombed with the student testers—probably because it’s green, says Barry Sackin, who was there representing the American School Food Services Association. But grown-ups liked it. In any case, reckons Caldwell, such meals are too labor intensive to mass produce, especially considering the kids’ lack of approval.
SPICY BROCCOLI GAUCAMOLE
The Dish: A veggie-green dip served with tortilla chips.
Rating: 23 percent of students rated it very good; 37 percent would be brave enough to try it a second time.
Reviews: Dennis says that, though the “broccamole” wasn’t terrible, it “had kind of a funny color to it.” According to Caldwell, the kids “put their noses up—didn’t want to taste it, didn’t want to touch it.” Explains Joey: “You could sort of tell it had something normal guacamole doesn’t have. . . . It had broccoli in it.”