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School’s produce tasting boosted by spirit of competition

Renaissance Charter School found that offering samples as part of a contest made kids more apt to try new fruits and veggies.

Sampling programs to introduce kids to new, healthy foods are great—as long as the kids cooperate by actually trying the samples. The Renaissance Charter School, a pre-K-12 school in Queens, N.Y., faced that problem last year when it wanted students to experience different fruits and vegetables, and have choices that go beyond peas, corn, apples and oranges.

The school’s self-operated foodservice department had started offering free samples of various fruits and veggies in the cafeteria, but that first foray met with mixed results as it didn’t seem to peak many students’ interest.

So they decided to make the tasting into a contest by having each student try two items presented, then vote for their favorite with a shiny colored star. Suddenly, students got involved by developing a rooting interest in the item they chose and soliciting their friends to vote accordingly.

Document10.jpgWe’re not talking peaches and apples here, either, as the foodservice department and the student food committee included items such as dragon fruit and star fruit that were a bit more exotic than that.

“Our goal was to break the routine of coming to the cafeteria by having something fun, and in the process offer students the chance to taste unfamiliar fruits and vegetables,” explains Principal Stacey Gauthier.

The initiative had not just a monotony-breaker but also an educational component, she adds, as the successive tasting events explored questions such as:

  • Bosc Pears look different from the Bartlett or Anjou Pears, but what is the difference in taste and texture? 
  • What does roasted kale taste like? 
  • What is star fruit? 

The idea worked with both fruits and vegetables, as, for example, by having students compare roasted cauliflower with roasted kale. 

“Our Chef Mohammed makes really great kale chips and we wanted students to try it,” Gauthier says. “The students cheered when roasted kale was announced as the winner. It was amazing to hear fourth-graders cheering for roasted kale!”

In an extension of this idea, the school’s foodservice department already has a juice tasting challenge planned for this fall, when it reportedly will be the only New York City school participating in the New York State Grapes to School pilot program. The tasting will pit New York State grape juice against grape juice from out of state and students will be taught to recognize the “NYS Grown & Certified” seal that will be displayed prominently on each cup and which lets consumers know that the juice is made from grapes grown by New York farmers.

In addition, this fall Renaissance will be getting more locally sourced food along with a consortium of other NYC charter schools thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture designed to help schools develop a feasible and specific Farm to School Action Plan for incorporating local, seasonal fresh foods into their meal programs. The plan also includes learning activities such as school gardening and culinary classes. 

Renaissance has been developing these initiatives over the past year with a high school leadership class with the support of vendor Family Foods, and a family-focused nutrition and cooking class funded by the F.E.A.S.T. For All non-profit. Meanwhile, the expansion of its rooftop garden through grants from Grow to Learn and Budding Botanists will allow the school to offer more educational opportunities—and more candidates for monotony-busting taste tests.

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