Erica Breunlin Knoxville News Sentinel
Published 3:15 PM EDT Oct 18, 2018
Fifth-grade student Trent McMahan loaded up on chicken, a slushy, pizza, and sour and cherry ice cream on Thursday – all before 10:30 a.m.
McMahan, who attends New Hopewell Elementary School, was one of about 400 students – mostly from Knox County Schools – lending their palates to some 70 vendors in a taste-testing event at the Grande Event Center in Knoxville.
Food stations aplenty
Food stations piled with everything from pizza and doughnuts to fish and French toast awaited waves of students, who scurried around the center to try new food items and offer their honest feedback as the district ponders revamping its menus.
They didn’t hesitate.
“Add something that’s gluten-free,” said fifth-grade student Hanna Fisher, when asked what changes she would make to the school meal menu. “I can’t eat any wheat.”
Fisher, also a student at New Hopewell Elementary School, was in luck as the district takes into consideration gluten allergies and other food specifications for individual students.
Knox County Schools facilitates the food-filled field trip each year.
The tasting serves as “our opportunity to get feedback from kids,” said Brett Foster, executive director of school nutrition for the school district. “They’re our customers, so we definitely care about what they think.”
Mission for nutrition
Along with certain grade levels of students, some of which incorporate classroom lessons into their experience, special groups like student council organizations have traditionally attended the event, Foster said.
It doesn’t consist solely of fried foods and sugary treats that easily win students over. While it’s important kids approve of the food they’re served, Foster noted that nutrition also weighs heavily on the district’s mind as many of its 60,000 students rely on school meals for their nutrition.
Both the district and vendors abide by guidelines under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, rooted in improving nutrition for children.
It hasn’t been easy for the food industry to blend nutritional needs with what students crave, according to Scott Blazer, the education segment manager for food-service company KeyImpact Sales & Systems, Inc.
“The challenge is the kids eat at home what their parents feed them, which is not always the most nutritional things, but sometimes it’s the easiest things,” Blazer said, pointing to many families constrained by time and finances.
But the move to healthier diets on a broad scale is unfolding, he said.
“It takes time for the kids to go through that transition to learn to eat (healthier),” Blazer said.
Additionally, when guidelines first steered the industry toward food items with less salt, less sugar, lower fat and other healthier standards, it challenged the industry, he said, as companies lacked the right kind of technology to develop acceptable foods.
On Thursday, Blazer provided a smorgasbord of breakfast and lunch samples for students – turkey, eggs, French toast, pizza, potatoes, chicken, tacos and more.
Blazer and his colleague, Mike Hartner, distributor business manager for KeyImpact Sales & Systems, Inc., were having as much fun as the kids who visited their tables.
“The smiles on the kids’ faces are the bottom line,” Hartner said. “It’s infectious.”
Nearby, mounds of colorful fruits enticed students to Sysco’s booth, at which food safety manager Jim Lucas and national account executive Tina Raulston manned what they believed to be the healthiest station.
Even while stacked against popular items like doughnuts and ice cream, the two reeled in repeat customers eager to be re-hydrated with fruit-infused water and lemonade.
“Our end-goal is that we introduce children to healthy snacks that are colorful, bright, and that they can enjoy eating healthy foods,” Raulston said.
Still, some students like McMahan opted for the kind of food that tends to be among kids’ favorites.
His suggestion for Knox County Schools?
“Add more pizza.”
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