Tomatoes at Lakeview Hill Farm

New Flavors, New Worlds

January 30, 2023 |

I’m in the Harbor Springs middle school cafeteria, and I can see the snow fall gracefully from the sky through large, bright windows. The warm and comforting scent of cinnamon and roasted squash dances through the air from the kitchen. It’s the quiet before a storm, the last few minutes before students will rush into the cafeteria for their midday nourishment.

As I set up my tasting table with the popular “Tried It, Liked it, Loved it” voting poster, I chat with Cathy Clarke, the HSPS Food Service Director about how she prepped the squash (roasted beautifully with cinnamon and brown sugar), the intricacies of ordering local produce, and the fresh snow twirling in the sky onto the playground outside. When she returns to the busy work of preparing to feed hundreds of kids, I finish portioning out the squash fries so students can quickly taste a few warm fries and vote. They will leave with a Harvest of the Month pamphlet and an “I Tried It!” sticker.

Students line up for a taste test. Lauren Driscoll, FoodCorps School Nutrition Service Member, at right.

Soon the storm hits, and students begin to filter into the cafeteria, their expressions exuding confusion and excitement at the new face—me—and the fresh food in the room. “What’s going on over here?” “Can I try it?” “How’d you make it?” Students catch on quickly, smiling at the opportunity to try something new and jumping at the chance to vote and share their preferences. “I’m here with FoodCorps to support your school in trying squash, the Harvest of the Month!” “Of course you can try it!” “Your school cafeteria bought Michigan-grown squash, cut it up and roasted it in the oven with olive oil, brown sugar and cinnamon. Here’s the recipe in our handout, which includes more info on squash!” 

Despite a few unsure faces, the squash won the masses over, with the overwhelming majority of students “Loving It” and “Liking It.” One excited fifth grader exclaimed, “You should put this on the school menu!” which Cathy later confirmed he jubilantly shared with her too. A few fourth grade boys seemed skeptical, but after I shared that the squash tastes similar to sweet potato fries, they tried it—and, you guessed it—loved it. I heard countless “I don’t like squash” turn into “Wow I do like this!” Many “I’ve never tried squash before” morphed into “Surprisingly, I like this!” There is magic in a taste test.

There is also profound power in a taste test. From the local farm that grew the produce, to the food service staff who prepared the product, to the child who was given a chance to taste scratch-cooked, nourishing food, there is power in every bite. So much so, that it takes an average of over ten instances of exposure to a food before kids like it. Providing them with such opportunities to positively experience new foods brings them that much closer to consistently choosing nutritious foods from the lunch line, at home, and throughout the rest of their lives. 

School food is also powerful. Staff are tasked with feeding hundreds of children every day, for breakfast and lunch. They have to be fast, efficient, and make food delicious enough to entice repeat customers. They serve food that makes students feel satiated, nourished, and supported. At FoodCorps, we support schools in these goals, playing various roles to fill in the gaps to increase the number of local, scratch-cooked and culturally relevant meals in cafeterias. On this Try it Tuesday, I wore the hat of Taste Test Host. Tomorrow, you may find me supporting lessons in school hoophouses, the next night hosting a nourishing snack family engagement night, the day after that meeting with teachers to incorporate food and nutrition lessons into their curriculum. A successful Farm to School program takes a barnyard of roles and partnerships to ensure success—and that’s where you come in!

Taste tests aren’t just for kids—we all benefit from the magic and power of trying new things. In the U.S, the consumption of fruits and vegetables isn’t particularly impressive. Only about 1 in 10 adults meet the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per day. I get it—it’s tough! A number of barriers stand in the way: inflation, access to local produce, affordability, family responsibilities, transportation, busy schedules. You name it. One simple solution to increase your personal and family’s consumption of fruits and vegetables is to host a Try It Day once a month at your own house. Watch Groundwork’s Harvest of the Month videos as a family, learn about the local farms near you that grow the produce, and try the month’s harvest using the included recipe in the pamphlet or incorporate it into a beloved family recipe! If you want to take it a step further, reach out to yo