School of Engineering and Arts spotlights its monthly vegetable taste testing

Benjamin Voorhees sampled the vegetables and said he was particularly fond of the parsnip chips, but could take or leave the hummus. A tray featured watermelon chip, parsnip chip, and hummus samples for students to try in the cafeteria at the School of Engineering and Arts in Golden Valley. Each month at SEA and 10 other schools in the district, as well as at schools in three other districts, students are introduced to a new vegetable through a grant program sponsored by the state called the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). Left to right, Belle Anderson, Lola Hodgson, and Amira Tesema were mostly fans of the vegetable chips. Hodgson said she was more impressed by the hummus. (Sun Post staff photos by Laci Gagliano)
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A tray featured watermelon chip, parsnip chip, and hummus samples for students to try in the cafeteria at the School of Engineering and Arts in Golden Valley. Each month at SEA and 10 other schools in the district, as well as at schools in three other districts, students are introduced to a new vegetable through a grant program sponsored by the state called the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP).

SHIP grant enables taste tests in Robbinsdale, Anoka-Hennepin, Hopkins and Osseo schools

By Laci Gagliano
Sun Post Newspapers

Students at the School of Engineering and Arts in Golden Valley were treated to a healthy taste test April 25. The test was part of the district’s partnership with Hennepin County Public Health and the Minnesota Department of Health’s Statewide Health Improvement Program, which gives elementary students the opportunity to sample fresh vegetables they may have never before eaten.

The taste testing is an ongoing program that 11 schools in Robbinsdale Area Schools and three other schools districts partake in, with SHIP providing the funding to train staff each month and conduct the tests on an ongoing basis. The April 25 edition at SEA featured dried watermelon chips and parsnip chips and hummus to dip the chips in, doled out along with school lunches in the bustling cafeteria.

“Each month staff receives training on the vegetable of the month and then we do a taste test with students to see their acceptance of it, and they get a sticker if they do give it a try,” said Michel Sagedahl, assistant director of child nutrition with Robbinsdale Area Schools.

Participating schools also take part in Smarter Lunchroom Movements, where special measures are taken within each school’s menu planning to help encourage students to eat more fresh produce. For instance, according to Sagedahl, SEA introduced a homemade ranch dressing to help increase fresh vegetable consumption.

Kitchen Manager Besan Tahtamoni said a new vegetable is introduced every month.

“We’ve been trying to get more recipes from our chef, Jenny, so she’s been training us every month. It’s been going really well. The kids like the vegetables we’ve been offering them,” Tahtamoni said.

This taste test is the fifth test that SEA has hosted. Tahtamoni said staff has been impressed by student responses.

“In the beginning, we had a brussels sprouts recipe, then we had squash, then carrots. Last time, we had cauliflower salad. It was really surprising us, (especially) the brussels sprouts, because it was our first one, and for most of the kids, they’re not really familiar with brussels sprouts. After that, we had that on our menu for the next one, and we still have it every month. The kids like it,” she said.

Students in the process of tasting the food had mixed reactions, though mostly positive. Student Benjamin Voorhees, who sampled a parsnip chip, liked what he tasted.

“It’s in between okay and good,” he said. “I actually kind of like it. I would eat it at home.”

Voorhees clarified that he prefers the pure taste of the parsnip over smothering it in hummus. “I don’t really like it with a lot of hummus, but with a little I’d eat it,” he said.

Student Lily Persson wasn’t personally a fan of the vegetable chips.

“I like the hummus, but I didn’t really like the chips that much. They’re not really chips, and I like chips better than vegetables,” she said.

Belle Anderson’s take on the watermelon chips was similar to Voorhees’ reaction.

“I don’t think it’s the best thing in the world, but it’s just really, really good, and if I had a choice between it and something else, I’d probably choose it.”

“On a scale of 1-10, I’d give it like an 8,” said Amira Tesema of the parsnip. “It’s not the best thing, but it tastes better with the hummus.”

Once students filed past the window where they pick up their lunch trays, they stopped at the table manned by chef and nutritionist Jenny Breen, who encouraged kids to pick up a sample of the hummus and vegetable chips.

Breen said the chips are made from vegetables grown in Minnesota as she handed interested students a white paper cup. Students who opted for a sample at each tasting are also given a sticker that says “I tried it.”

“They’re getting really excited about the sticker, so that might be a little incentive to get them to try it,” Sagedahl said.

Breen said she and other staff members have been pleased with the large number of students who are opting in for the vegetables.

“The students are responding great,” she said. “(There is) anywhere from 50-75 percent, sometimes 90 percent acceptance of the recipe.”

Tahtamoni said some students are taking the experience home with them.

“We have some parents asking about recipes so they can cook it for their kids at home,” Tahtamoni said.

The April 25 event was a spotlight of the monthly efforts the county and school district are making to encourage healthy eating. Three school districts in addition to Robbinsdale, including Anoka-Hennepin, Hopkins, and Osseo Area Schools have received grant money from SHIP for the initiative and host taste tests.

According to the Department of Health, a lack of fruits and vegetables in a diet plays a role in obesity, an epidemic costing the state an estimated $3 billion annually. Additionally, studies show that healthier eating contributes to better performance in school, behavior, and attendance, which is why program coordinators say they hope to expose students to these vegetables they may otherwise not have encountered to encourage a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

Contact Laci Gagliano at [email protected]