Kids Test Healthier School Lunches

As she devours a sweet potato pancake at a taste test at her school, fourth-grader Paige Murset gives her seal of approval: "I like it. It's really, really sweet."

Next up was a "peanut butter and jelly sandwich" made with sunflower seeds instead of peanut butter.

Shante Brown sizes it up beautifully: "It was good, but it tastes like sunflower seeds."

With their OK, such foods could make it into school cafeterias across the country.

They were among 40 fourth- and fifth-graders at Meadowbrook Elementary school Wednesday testing food like blueberry burgers, dried plum barbecue sauce and asparagus salsa for a U.S. Department of Agriculture (search) event celebrating National School Food Lunch week (search).

The USDA runs the National School Lunch Program (search) and has often been under fire for not requiring healthier standards, particularly as the number of overweight children continues to grow.

"This is an opportunity to try out some brand new food products and see if kids like them," said John Perkins of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Eric Foreman, a fruit and vegetable program administrator for the USDA, said the agency hopes the results of the taste test inspire those who prepare meals for the kids to get creative in putting more fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

"We want to help introduce products that are higher in nutrition, lower in fat, to the kids," said John Lund, head of USDA's food quality assurance program.

The smoky-tasting blueberry burgers — a combination of ground beef and blueberry puree — for instance, have the advantage of being lower in fat and packed with blueberries' antioxidants.

"It'll be up to the students and the schools whether they'll see these on their menus," he said.

Lund said the kids' opinions were vital. "They're our ultimate customer. If they're not going to eat it, it's plate waste."

Foreman said events like the taste-testing help schools get creative with the supplies. He said that items that the kids approve of will eventually make it into forums like newsletters and presentations to help get the word out.

"The School Nutrition Association applauds USDA for creativity in bringing out agriculture community and our school nutrition community together," said the group's Barry Sackin. The nutrition association is a membership organization for those involved in preparing school lunches. "A lot of schools are looking for these innovative approaches."

Phyllis Propes, director of Child Nutrition Services for the Fort Worth Independent School District, said that manufacturers seem to be getting the message that school districts are looking for healthy food.

Before the taste test, school and health officials held an assembly in which they talked to the kids about the importance of staying healthy and in shape. They also watched a play put on by their peers in which boxer Paulie Ayala stressed the importance of staying healthy for athletes.

Meanwhile, as she finishes off the last items of the taste test, Paige seems to be getting the message that eating well is important. She says it helps you to "be strong."

"You can't be overweight that much," she continues, and "you eat stuff that's good for your heart and stuff.