Health Update

February 20, 2002 2 min read

On the Menu: Plum Burgers?

Plum burgers, turkey-plum franks, raisin barbecue sauce, yogurt-covered cherries. These are just a few of the menu items the federal government tried out on public school students recently in the hope of finding new uses for the nation’s surplus fruit and vegetable crops.

The most recent taste testing was held last month at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, where 20 students sampled a new crop of recipes, while federal officials recorded their reactions.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s marketing division started the product tests in spring 2000 with students at Van Ness. (“USDA Goes to the Source to Test Latest Menu Creations,” May 31, 2000.) That was followed by similar events in two Virginia schools and two schools in the Los Angeles area, USDA officials said.

The results of the tests are used to market the products to schools in the federal government’s school lunch program, which provides free and reduced-price meals for 27 million children each day.

“We’ll provide that information [on the results of the taste testing] to schools and let them make the decision on whether they will purchase those products,” said Robert C. Keeney, a deputy administrator of the USDA’s marketing-service division.

Although the taste testing involves only small groups of students, that tactic of letting youngsters sample foods before they are put on an official menu makes the difference between force-feeding unwanted crops to schoolchildren and giving schools and students some say in the matter, said Barry Sackin, a vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Food Service Association.

“We think it’s a wonderful program,” Mr. Sackin said. “When schools are offered these products, they have a sense of how kids responded to them.”

Among other items the Van Ness students tried last month were plum burgers, made from small amounts of dried plum puree mixed with ground beef. That combination, federal officials say, lowers the fat content of burgers by almost 40 percent, while adding moisture and flavor. Seventeen of the 20 Van Ness taste testers rated the patties “very good"—the highest rating they could give. The same plum puree is added to turkey franks for 33 percent less fat than the typical all-beef or turkey hot dog. But the franks apparently didn’t taste as good as the burgers, with 11 students giving them a very good rating.

But the real losers among the new foods were desserts, namely peach- cranberry cups, with just eight students saying they were very good, and yogurt- covered cherries, which received the highest rating from only six students.

The lower fat content of the new foods fits neatly with the health standards of the school lunch program, according to USDA officials.

School lunches must meet national dietary recommendations that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and fewer than 10 percent from saturated fat. The meals must also provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of calcium, iron, protein, and vitamins A and C.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Health Update