Professor Stacey Snelling and Katie Nash of the D.C. Central Kitchen conduct taste tastes with students at Aiton Elementary School.
Plenty of parents can attest that getting young kids to switch up their diets and choose leafy greens over French fries and pizza can be a real uphill battle. But researchers here in the District are trying the seemingly impossible — getting children to eat the vegetables served up in school cafeterias all over the city.
Around lunchtime at Aiton Elementary School in northeast D.C., many children were throwing out their untouched vegetables. This is known as “plate waste.” In 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that every year, 133 billion pounds of food is wasted or spoils before it can be eaten. It’s one of the reasons a few decades ago the USDA allowed schools to stop the “serve” method where food is already placed on a tray and go to an “offer” method where you have a choice of what you want to eat.
Professor Stacey Snelling, the Associate Dean and Professor in the School of Education, Teaching and Health at American University, says if children get to decide what they eat, more often than not they won't even try something new.
“In the serve model we see more waste, in the offer model we see less consumption. And we haven’t found the balance yet,” she said.
So Snelling teamed up with D.C. Central Kitchen to do vegetable taste tests. Students at two DCPS schools get to try a seasonal vegetable prepared three different ways. Then they vote on which method of preparation they like best and it goes on the school menu.
At this taste test, they had to choose their favorites from among parmesan crusted zucchini, roasted zucchini and zucchini stewed with tomatoes. Some boys like Delonte Stringfellow ran to the trash can after tasting the zucchini stewed with tomatoes.
“It tastes nasty! And it was too sour,” he said.
Katie Nash, the program manager and nutritionist with D.C. Central Kitchen, says she just wants students to try different vegetables. Many of the children at Aiton Elementary had tasted zucchini before. Some of these children will call cauliflower “white broccoli.”
But not all the kids had the same reactions as Delonte. Students Kenyiyah Chaplin and Jada Champ had very different reactions to the parmesan crusted zucchini and roasted zucchini options.
“It’s the bomb!” They said enthusiastically. “It’s got cheese, it’s got flavor, it tastes like Papa Johns! I like the roasted one. It tastes very good!”
Nash said that the parmesan zucchini had very little cheese, and was baked, not fried. But in general, these sorts of positive reactions make her day.
“I had one student who said ‘I have one word, three syllables. Ah-Ma-zing’! I said that’s great! It makes it worth it,” Nash said.
Once the dish is on the school menu, then using an iPhone app, researchers measure whether students actually eat that vegetable. And those results are compared to students in schools that don’t take part in the taste test. The results from last year were pretty interesting.
“In D.C., we've done collard greens, broccoli, sweet potatoes, black beans and spinach. And in all of those cases we have shown significant changes between baseline, which is when children have it placed on their trays, and then the taste test and voting method. And in every case, there was a significant change in the amount of vegetables consumed, reducing plate waste. Broccoli was the most dramatic. It went from 12 percent to 40 percent which means almost half the broccoli being served is being consumed,” Nash said.
Nash says children like what’s familiar.
“The sweet potato fries are the most popular. We also did chick pea fries which is a little different but it had that fry appeal. We do some trickery. For broccoli the ones that were Asian were the choice cause a lot of kids said it tasted like Chinese takeout! But that’s alright,” she said.
Overwhelmingly, with 25 votes, it was the parmesan zucchini that won this taste test. It’ll be on the school lunch menu at Aiton soon.
Snelling, the researcher conducting this study, says it takes eight tastes before you get used to a certain food. So children often need to be coaxed to try something new and to eat healthy options. Research has shown that a successful “nudge” in the right direction can be anything from pre-slicing fruits, to giving food different names so instead of ‘seafood filet’ people are more likely to find ‘succulent Italian seafood filet’ an appetizing choice.
But there are always going to be healthy options that are a bit of a hard sell: The team says the most difficult vegetables to get students to taste are spinach, beets and brussel sprouts.
Partial support for education reporting comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. WAMU 88.5 is licensed to American University.
Music: "Green Onions" by the Ventures from Gold
Getting Kids to Eat Their Vegetables