Taste testers

School tastings give students chance to weigh in on local foods

taste testing
Kids in Willsboro try beets grown on nearby farms, during a taste-testing event held by Meghan Brooks of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Melissa Hart photo

One of the big challenges for school serving local foods (particularly vegetables) is figuring out ways to get kids to eat them.

That’s where Meghan Brooks, Farm to School Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension comes in. About once a month she pays a visit to area schools to give out samples of locally grown foods during lunch time. The foods are already purchased and prepared by the cafeteria staff, but Brooks finds that doing these tasting sessions puts special focus and attention on different foods.

On Thursday, Jan. 30, she’s dishing up roasted beets at Willsboro Central School, handing them out in small paper cups for students to try. These particular beets were grown 10 miles away at Juniper Hill Farm, along with the diced, cooked carrots and roasted sweet potatoes being served as an option as kids go through the lunch line.

‘While many local foods are often served in the lunch line, students might not be aware of it,” she said.

The first lunch period of the day begins just before 11 a.m. with pre-k through 2nd grades. The youngest students at the school are excited as they crowd around Brooks’ table set up at the back of the lunch room.

“I want to try a beet!” One girl says. “I didn’t love it,” another kid says after giving a beet a nibble. A girl with a blue polka dotted shirt asks for more and Brooks is happy to oblige. “It was a little spicy,” says the girl, whose mouth is turning pink from all the beets. “That’s what you said last time,” laughs Brooks.

Last month’s food was corn bread (using corn meal from Essex Farm) and some of the other recent tastings at area schools have included a wheat berry salad, delicata squash (roasted with butter and maple syrup and cut into “smiley” shapes), and kale chips. The kale was so popular it was added to the school menu at Ticonderoga Central School. “Which is the ultimate goal here,” said Brooks.

Students can give their feedback at each tasting by way of a white board. The voting process is simple: draw a happy face on one half of the board if you liked it, a sad face if you didn’t.

Brooks gets inspiration and ideas for lessons and projects online, citing Vermont and New Hampshire farm-to-school programs as great resources for the “Harvest of the Month” tasting sessions. With a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and a master’s in food systems from University of Vermont, specializing in rural food access, Brooks has found a job she loves, working in the schools and working to increase local procurement of local foods. After graduating from UVM, she worked at the Hub on the Hill in Essex, managing the kitchen and working on the other end of facilitating sales to area schools.

“It was a great introduction to food in the community,” she said.

Next up in the lunch schedule are the upper elementary/middle school students. These kids tend to be a bit more skeptical about trying something new, and less enthusiastic.

Brooks makes the rounds through the cafeteria, offering up beets and dishing out second helpings to those who want it.

A few students make their way over to weigh in on the white board, making “yay” or “nay.” By the time the high schoolers filter in for the last lunch period, quiet has descended.

“High school is the toughest by far,” for convincing them to try anything new, Brooks said. Overall, the white board has more smiles drawn on it than unhappy faces, indicating a successful tasting session.

About Melissa Hart

Melissa is a journalist with experience as a reporter and editor , combined with work for nonprofits. As the Explorer's digital editor, she serves as editor of Adirondack Almanack.(com) and helps manage the Explorer's website. When not online, she enjoys hiking, camping and other outdoors activities, and spending time with her husband, their twin daughters, and rescue animals -- two dogs and two cats.

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