A version of the following story, written by FoodCorps Arkansas Service Member Kelsie Shearrer, first appeared on the FoodCorps Arkansas blog. Kelsie serves in Fayetteville, Ark.
After the success of our apple taste tests this past fall, it came time for butternut squash! This was the Fayetteville Public School (FPS) District’s first time putting this vegetable on the menu and it was locally sourced. The students already had been eating sweet potato fries from a local processing plant, but many had never heard of this oblong-shaped squash.
Ally Mrachek, RD, FPS Farm-to-School Consultant (and former FoodCorps service member), along with Morgan Stout, our amazing Food Service Director, decided that taste tests would be a good way to familiarize the students with this new menu item and help them decide if they’d want it on their lunch tray.
A huge part of my service year thus far has involved taste tests and I swear by them! These butternut taste tests made a significant impact. One of the kitchen supervisors reported that the students chose to take 40 lbs. more squash on the day we had the taste test than they did the previous week. Here is our recipe:
We learn a lot from each tasting we coordinate. There a few pitfalls you should be aware of when planning a butternut tasting:
Dino Hands (seriously)
Always wear gloves if you can! Whatever the natural chemical is inside butternut squash, it turns your skin into dinosaur scales all day long.
Steaming the squash for five minutes prior to peeling it (with a vegetable peeler) makes the skin glide off with ease.
Does It Herself FoodCorps Girl
Whenever you want to introduce a new item or recipe, involve the kitchen staff! They can be a wealth of knowledge, with tips on how to do things more efficiently. Also, they are the ones who will be preparing the food in the future, so they need to learn the best ways to do it. Some of my best memories were from getting to know the kitchen staff; cooking really brings people together. Change is hard and you want to make the transition to a new menu item enjoyable and encouraging for everyone involved.
We learned some great lessons about presentation as well:
Entice, DON’T Pressure
I kept telling kids “You don’t have to try it if you don’t want to,” while also saying “It tastes similar to pumpkin pie or sweet potato fries!”
Mouthful of Syllables
Ally and I joked about how we wish we were serving “beets” or “peas” because that would involve a lot less syllables to offer each lunch-line kiddo. At one of the schools I handed out the samples to a table and shortened it to “Do you want to try some squash?” Then after they ate it I explained that it was called “roasted butternut squash.” One little boy looked very bewildered with this longer name and asked if there was a rash on his face. I said “No,” then quickly asked him, “But why?” and he explained that he had a nut allergy. It took me a minute to register the reason for his worries, but then I assured him our butterNUTS didn’t have any nuts in them and he was able to relax. Poor kid!
Positive Peer Influence
Some students had the most disgusted looks on their faces and walked straight past my samples into the lunchroom; they acted like I was the sun and was getting in their eyes, so they shielded their face from my butternut squash. But later, after their friends had tried it and raved about it, they came back acting like they hadn’t just totally ignored me and I happily gave them a sample.
In the end, most students were big fans of butternut squash:
These results, as well as observing how kids interact with each other around food, reminds me of how easily kids can be influenced and how parents can play a huge role in what children desire to eat. If parents enjoy certain foods, kids catch on and in turn can be more open to those foods. The same goes for friends. Don’t you wish every kid could have a veggie-loving friend around at all times? We’re working on it.
To find more information on using local food in school cafeterias, visit the Local Food Resources page on the ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website. Related ATTRA publications include Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions and Tips for Selling to Institutional Markets.