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Local School Lunches Get Thumbs Up From Kids

Mon, 11/21/2011 - 4:07am

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The sauteed sweet potatoes with oven-roasted bell peppers, sauteed andouille, sauteed broccoli, sweet potato pancakes and orange wedges all got thumbs up from 40 third- through eighth-grade students in New Orleans — and all were Louisiana products.

The pancakes were very popular — lots of students wanted seconds — but younger students tended to leave most of the broccoli on their plates, said the LSU AgCenter's Pam Hodson, who arranged the taste test as the first in what she hopes to make a statewide series. About two-thirds of the students wrote on their rating forms that they liked the broccoli, she said.

"We want to try to match Louisiana producers with schools around the state," said Hodson. "If we can help farmers find markets and schools identify local sources for their food, everybody comes out ahead."

She said some money to add local food to school menus could come from U.S. Department of Agriculture grants planned next year to let schools buy produce from local farmers and fishermen, and let them bring the growers and gatherers into schools as speakers.

The first step is making sure students will eat the food, said Chris Van Vliet. He's food service director for FirstLine Schools, which runs Langston Hughes Academy, where about 40 students participated in the Nov. 8 taste test, and four other charter schools in the city.

"The score cards showed acceptance on all products — and the students asked and received seconds," Van Vliet said. "Now the next step of the project is studying the feasibility of utilizing the products tested in FirstLine Schools menu."

The schools operate under USDA guidelines, Van Vliet said. The federal program for free lunch pays $2.79 per meal, including labor, food, supplies and overhead, leaving about $1.50 to cover the cost of the food itself.

"Food cost is a challenge, but increased student meal participation and food acceptance is the optimum goal," Van Vliet said.

FirstLine's schools include Samuel J. Green Charter School, where the Edible School Yard, a student garden project, is located.

As a way to help bring the groups together, Hodson has a USDA grant to survey both groups. A survey to be sent to every school food service director in the state asks what types of produce they're interested in and how they would buy them. Farmers and fishermen will be asked how much they could regularly supply and how much they'd need to sell to make a profit.

She plans to send out the food service surveys in January, and LSU AgCenter and LSU Sea Grant staffers around the state will tell farmers and fishermen why their surveys are important and what they have to gain, she said.

Food for the taste test was donated — andouille from New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, sweet potatoes from Wayne Garber Farms of Iota, broccoli from Hollygrove Market and Farm in New Orleans, oranges from Tommy Becnel Family Citrus of Plaquemines Parish and sweet potato pancake mix from Bruce Foods Inc. of New Iberia.

It was prepared by Louis Edmond, district chef for Sodexo, which has the service contract for FirstLine Schools and about five other charter schools in New Orleans.

Hodson said she explained to the children that the orange slices were to cleanse their palates so that the strong tastes of broccoli and sausage didn't affect the taste of the sweet potatoes and pancakes.

"They thought they were so uptown, cleansing their palates," she said.

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