WASHINGTON — At noon on a recent Friday, students at D.C.’s Aiton Elementary School eagerly line up in front of a table in the cafeteria. On the table are small cups filled with something most of the students have never tasted: zucchini.
“We have Parmesan-crusted zucchini crisps, roasted zucchini and stewed zucchini and tomatoes,” Stacey Snelling tells the crowd of kids, who are there to sample the options.
It’s Fresh Feature Friday at Aiton — a day when students get to try a vegetable that’s prepared three different ways and tell the adults which one they want to see on their lunch menu.
“We have improved fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lower-sodium items [in schools], but what we noticed was kids weren’t familiar with these foods,” says Snelling, associate dean at the School of Education Teaching and Health at American University.
For the past two years, Snelling has been working with D.C. Central Kitchen to feature seasonal vegetables at eight local schools: four in Arlington and four in the District.
Gone are the days of mushy and tasteless steamed vegetables. The recipes served on Fresh Feature Fridays are prepared with a twist — all while adhering to the Healthy Schools Act standards.
Another Friday revealed students at the eight schools prefer their broccoli cooked Asian-style.
“We saw a great increase in the consumption of broccoli,” when it was served Asian-style, Snelling says. “We do need to find the right preparation method that alters it a little bit in order to get them to try it again. … They don’t get exposed to it if it’s sitting on their tray. They actually have to try that vegetable.”
Snelling says that in the past, 90 percent of the zucchini on lunch trays would end up in the trash, because students weren’t familiar with the vegetable and it didn’t look appetizing to them. Her goal this week is to change that pattern.
The 30-plus students who went through Friday’s Fresh Feature line were very vocal about which zucchini recipe they liked best.
“The first one. It was crunchy and tasted good,” said one student after eating the Parmesan-crusted zucchini crisp.
“I want this one for lunch,” said another, pointing to the baked crisps.
Greg Hollins, a teacher at Aiton, says his students routinely look forward to Fresh Feature Fridays.
“It gives them the opportunity to shake things up because they can look at foods in a different light,” Hollins says. “I think that when you have the opportunity to try something [prepared] a different way, you might develop an appreciation for it.”
So far, Snelling and D.C. Central Kitchen have featured six different types of produce for Fresh Feature Fridays — from sweet potatoes to spinach and strawberries.
Katie Nash, program manager and registered dietitian for D.C. Central Kitchen, says she tries to develop the Feature Friday recipes around foods with which the kids are most familiar.
“The sweet potato fries were really popular. We also did chickpea fries, which is a little bit different, but had that ‘fry appeal,’ even though it wasn’t fried; it was actually baked. Really, it’s about that familiarity,” says Nash, who says the Asian-style broccoli was a hit because a lot of the kids said it tasted “like takeout.”
“Hopefully now that they’ve seen it in this new way, it will be something that they try all the time.”
The new recipes strike a chord with the kids’ taste buds, and so does the initiative’s approach: to let the students have a say when it comes to what’s served for lunch.
“They’re usually just told to do something, and now they get the option to tell us what to do and what to put on the menu. So I think that’s really cool for a child to be able to do,” Nash says.
Ed Kwitowski, director of school food services at D.C. Central Kitchen, agrees. “Really, the thing that they get the most excited about is just having that buy-in and having a choice,” he says.
Despite introducing unfamiliar vegetables to young students, Nash says, so far she’s seen little hesitation about trying new foods.
“I’ve never had a student say, ‘Absolutely not; I’m not trying it.’ They always try. They might not like it, and that’s fine — we let them know that they don’t have to like it. But usually they end up liking one of the three methods,” she says.
Friday’s recipes brought in 25 votes for the Parmesan-crusted zucchini crisps, two votes for the roasted zucchini and five votes for the stewed zucchini and tomatoes. Over the next few weeks, Nash and Kwitowski will fine-tune the winning recipe, and in one month, it will be on the school’s menu.
When the students go through the lunch line, a sign next to the new vegetable recipe will let the kids know that’s the one that won their votes.
But not every school votes for the same preparation method, Snelling says.
“Every school has its own culture, and sometimes we have two methods that have to be prepared because one method won at one school and another method won at another school,” she says.
In the fall, Fresh Feature Fridays will return with a handful of new, seasonal vegetables to introduce to the students.
“We created cafeterias that serve healthier foods. But in order to increase the adoption of those foods, children need to be involved. And that’s the gap right now,” Snelling says.
“The provisions are not going to go away. People believe that healthier foods are better for children, so now we have the challenge, as educators, to help students accept these foods.”