Editor’s note: National School Lunch week kicks off Monday, and a closer look at the National School Lunch Program is due. This federally assisted meal program provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to 100,000 schools that serve 30.5 million students each day. Of the 5 billion lunches served annually, 19.8 million are free lunches, 2.2 million are reduced price and 8.5 million are full price. Greater participation in the school lunch program enables school districts to have higher federal reimbursements and helps reduce their cost of producing lunches due to commodity entitlements.
Eleventh-grader Dylan Kibe is making history. As he samples three little cups with carrots, he marks his degree of liking on a 10-centimeter line, ranking each sample for appearance, aroma, flavor, texture, seasoning and general acceptance. His opinion will be recorded in a lab at Penn State, and the results tabulated to see which one of the three samples all the 100-plus tasters preferred. The highest-ranked sample will be formulated for mass production next semester in the lunchroom at the Bald Eagle Area School District in Wingate and the lunch vegetables served in the cafeteria may actually — hold on here, folks — be chosen and eaten, rather than thrown away.
Kathleen Keller, an assistant professor in the departments of nutritional sciences and food science, is leading the charge on this study that seeks to make vegetables appealing on the school lunch line. Her research interest is in eating behaviors — specifically, in how eating behaviors in children develop and how they can be related to risk for obesity later in life. In 2012, she contacted the McCormick Science Institute, the research organization behind the spice giant McCormick and Co., to collaborate on a study aimed at increasing acceptance of vegetables for children at schools, where the Healthy, Hunger free Kids Act of 2010 mandated a colorful weekly vegetable rotation to be included on each child’s lunch tray.
Due to vigilance in keeping down the fat and sodium levels of the lunches, the vegetables were cooked and served without any fat or salt and most of them were dumped into trash cans at the dishwashing window. The increased plate waste caused resentment for all concerned — children who didn’t like the vegetables served and who were often unfamiliar with them, cafeteria workers who watched their efforts rejected — and the upshot was a significant decline in the number of children choosing to buy school lunch. At Bald Eagle, the number fell by 10 percent.
Keller’s “Spice It Up!” study was pitched to area schools in 2014, and Bald Eagle Area, where Mark Ott then served as food service director, opened the door. Two entities as big as Penn State and McCormick don’t rush into things and Ott retired from BEA before the study and taste tests commenced — with surveys of the cafeteria workers, the students and their parents, and then moving on to recipe development in the research kitchens at McCormick in Hunt Valley. Fortunately, his successor, Laura Frye, was also willing to support the project.
Frye, who served as school food service director in the Philipsburg-Osceola district before taking over the dual districts of Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Area in 2015, is a Penn State nutrition alumna who is passionate about improving the quality of life of those in her charge, and understands that food plays a major role.
“The 2011 reauthorization bill changed everything. The regulations were challenging because it takes about a dozen times to expose children to a new food before there is acceptance. We were serving the vegetables as required, but moving 200 kids through lunch lines in 20 minutes does not make it possible to introduce new foods gradually,” said Frye, who is very willing to get creative with ways to deliver healthy food to the students. Her 2014 universal “Second Breakfast” program in P-O made a breakfast grab and go cart available in the hallway for senior high students not able to get to school early enough for breakfast.
Thinking outside the box is second nature to Frye, and conducting the study at Bald Eagle Area is no coincidence. The district has a robust family and consumer science curriculum that supports classes such as Field, Forest and Stream to Table, World Foods, Culinary Essentials and Baking. FFA program is in its third year at the school and science teacher Todd Biddle raised chickens last spring in a class that saw the entire process through the butchering and freezing. Two weeks ago those 40 chickens were made into chicken corn chowder by the FCS classroom and sold as a fundraiser for the FFA “Fresh is Better Showcase” to support next year’s chicken project.
“Folks in this district raise food, can food and actually live the farm-to-table life,” Frye said.
Included in that is her cafeteria staff, all fully supportive of the extra- as well as intra-curricular food activities. The chicken was roasted in the cafeteria’s Combi ovens, and the stock and the corn chowder were cooked in its steam jacketed kettles. The details involved with the Spice It Up study taking place during their busy lunch periods are just a few wrinkles that they all help to iron out during the taste test sessions. Head cook Robin Lyons makes the microwave available for use in the lunch room; custodian Mike Williammee sets up the long tables and rounds up the trash cans; food service secretary Cathy Fetzer prints the coupons that the tasters earn; and cafeteria cashier Cindy Baughman stacks out the snack line to accommodate the 100 coupons that she redeems after the tasters submit their completed evaluation forms to the research team.
The study, conducted in Keller’s lab by graduate student Juliana Fritts assisted by international interns Clara Fort, of France, and Qihan Liang, of China, is examining how to make eight different frozen vegetables and one low-fat dip more appealing so the students eat and enjoy them. The differences are subtle — the carrot study samples include carrots with just a light touch of oil and salt; carrots with oil, salt and cinnamon; and carrots with oil, salt and a balanced combination of savory spices. An informal poll of three students that day earned a vote for each one of the varieties. The research team knows they have their work cut out for them because by the middle and high school years, students’ preferences for vegetables may be well established.
Kibe and his fellow students at BEA are making choices that will determine the recipes chosen for the intervention phase of the study that will commence in January, when the preferred version of each vegetable is included in the cafeteria line. Plate waste will be measured to see if the students do indeed eat more vegetables when they are seasoned the way the majority prefers them. The results could dramatically improve the plate for more than 30 million children each day and instill a love of vegetables that could last a — much longer — lifetime.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.