Kindergartner Louise Martin took a tentative bite of the cheese tortellini covered with pumpkin alfredo sauce, then smiled.
Potential new menu items
Charleston County School District is testing some new, healthier menu options, and it will consider incorporating these into 2014-15 school year lunch menus. The following are some of those dishes.
Oriental sesame chicken salad
Sweet potato black bean enchiladas
Parmesan and lemon cod
Southwest lentil soup
Garbanzo bean salad
Chicken with apples and barley
Penne white caesar salad
Source: Charleston County School District
The 5-year-old gobbled up the two pieces in her tasting sample, and she even licked the inside of the plastic cup because it had remnants of the sauce.
"This was the best thing in the cafeteria I've ever tasted," she said.
Score one for the school cafeteria.
The tortellini taste test was part of Charleston County School District's effort to give school menus a healthy overhaul for the 2014-15 school year.
Serving more nutritious food is nothing new, but Charleston leaders are looking to shift to more made-from-scratch recipes. They say that will make meals healthier and open the door to using more locally grown fruits and vegetables. That could mean student garden produce could end up on more cafeteria trays.
"There's a lot of synergy going on here," said Walter Campbell, the district's executive director of food services. "We're going to have to roll it out school by school so it's done properly."
This shift won't be done without planning, training and equipment, and the district plans to invest about $700,000 into the initiative.
Across the Lowcountry
From Seattle to New York City, schools across the country have been following the made-from-scratch trend. More cafeterias appear to be moving in that direction so their meals meet federal nutrition guidelines.
"The made-from-scratch is coming into play because the market hasn't been able to keep up with the changing regulations out of Washington (D.C.)," said Linda Fairchild, director of child nutrition services for Berkeley County schools.
Berkeley school cafeterias avoid canned fruits and vegetables whenever possible - cans are packed with sodium, she said - and try to use more locally grown fruits and vegetables and serve those raw. Instead of cooking frozen broccoli, schools get it fresh from Hickory Bluff Berry Farm in the county, chop it and serve it to students with a ranch dip.
"I want to get more fruits and vegetables that haven't been processed in any form," she said.
She plans to divert as much as $800,000 to vendors for fresh produce rather than frozen or canned. Staff will be trained on how to season and cook it properly.
She can see the district moving to more made-from-scratch items, but she said she wants to make sure that would be done in a way that results in children still eating those meals.
"If it ends up in the trash, we haven't done our job," she said.
Dorchester 2 schools appear to be the local leader in the made-from-scratch movement. Ray Bahadori, director of nutrition, said the district's cafeterias adopted that approach in 2012 to serve healthier meals and avoid the fat and salt that aren't good for kids.
The majority of food served in Dorchester 2 schools is made in their cafeterias, and staff have received training on how to use herbs and spices rather than salt to make the meals more palatable.
"We have to continuously change the way that we provide these foods to make it healthy for students," he said. "Because no matter how healthy food you put on the menu, if students don't eat it, it is a waste of time and money."
The district also has harvested produce grown in the Ashley Ridge High School garden to serve at least seven of its schools. The district plans to expand its school gardens.
In Charleston, none of the district's regular school meals include pumpkin, nutmeg, tortellini or Parmesan cheese, but those all were part of the pumpkin alfredo cheese tortellini.
"We're using products we never would've thought of," said Cindy Kessler, a district project manager who's overseeing the pilot menus. "We're reaching out and trying to get more flavors and more ingredients."
The new recipes are a concoction of a nutritionist who whipped up a batch of potential new meals for school lunches. Nikki Gee, food service manager at Buist Academy, has been cooking up small portions of those recipes for months to see whether kids like the dishes.
Gee said the new recipes would be "doable" on a whole-school scale, but it would be different, particularly from a time management standpoint.
"These (new recipes) take longer than the ones we have now," she said.
One of the biggest hits so far was the pizza. Instead of heating up pre-packaged pizza, Gee used a ready-made crust, sauce and toppings to create a healthier version. It took more time, but kids still ask Gee when she's going to serve those again, she said.
Students haven't been wild about dishes with black beans or garbanzo beans, particularly those where kids could see them. They didn't like a cauliflower dish, either.
"What it comes down to is the kids," Gee said. "They are the ones who have to like it."
Officials planned to test the same recipes at another district school before making the cuts for next school year's menu. They have to factor in the cost of the ingredients to ensure it's not a cost-prohibitive dish.
What kids think
Gee filled small, plastic cups with pieces of the tortellini to offer to students.
"I can get (the little kids) to be more adventurous," she said. Middle-schoolers are tougher because "they know what they like by then."
Kindergartner Finley Love didn't hesitate when he put a whole tortellini in his mouth, but he squinched up his face in disgust and spit it out.
"It's gross," he said as he shook his head in a "no" motion. "I didn't like it."
When Love was told that the sauce had pumpkin in it, his face distorted again. But he seemed to be among the minority of kids who weren't enthusiastic about the dish.
"It was so good I ate all of it," said kindergartner Benjamin Tolley.
Fifth-grader Abigail Oldfield said she'd never had tortellini but she liked it; it tasted like cheese and dough. Although she brings a lunch from home, she said she likes trying the samples.
Even when she hasn't liked them, she said "none of it was terrible. I'd have to say it's just not my favorite."
Gee handed out samples to all grades, and at the end of the lunch periods, she was pleased with the result.
"I would put in on my 'kids hit list,' " she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.