Graciela Torres, 13, stared suspiciously at the bowl of chicken and dumplings. She picked it up and sniffed once.
"Ugh," she said, sticking out her tongue.
She didn't want to taste it, but that's why she and nearly 200 other schoolchildren were gathered in the Spoto High School cafeteria. The students were enlisted as taste testers, helping to determine new items for next school year's menu.
"One little bite won't hurt," the Sgt. Paul R. Smith Middle School student said. She chewed slowly, methodically. And then a smile spread over her face.
"Oh, my God, I love this one!'
The Chicken N' Dumplings was just one of 27 dishes facing scrutiny during Hillsborough County Public Schools Student Nutrition Services Department's third annual Fresh Flavors - Foods for Body and Mind Expo on Tuesday morning.
Cuban picadillo with peppers and rice. Spinach lasagna. Carna guisada with yellow rice. The scents mixed together to form the vague aroma of cooked cafeteria food that any student knows well.
"We wanted a fun, innovative way to do customer feedback instead of sending a survey to classrooms," said Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition services. "We had to work with our manufacturers to find different menu concepts to offer the kids."
Students were asked to evaluate the food on three different levels — appearance, smell and taste — and rank each as either "love it," "like it" or "dislike it." Nutrition services then takes the feedback into consideration.
There are usually a couple of obvious winners. Last year, it was chicken broccoli alfredo.
"We wouldn't have picked that one, but they loved it," Harrison said. "Those that are at the bottom, we won't pick. If some of the healthier options are in the middle, like the sweet potato fish with pineapple salsa, that's a good way for us to get fish and vitamin A on the menu."
At another table, T'kayla Scott, 17, of Hillsborough High School took a bite of the fish tacos with black bean salsa.
"Oh, no," she said, shaking her head and reaching for her pencil.
"It's just gross," she wrote on the sheet. "No flavor."
"You can't write that," Demi Pinkney, 17, said, reaching over and erasing the word "gross" with her pencil.
Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe played overhead as students dashed from one table to another. Most had a routine. Sniff. Taste. Judge. Maybe spit it out. Maybe go back for seconds. And then move on to the next.
The school system made an active decision to try to include healthier options. Mac and cheese made with wheat grains and butternut squash. Gluten-free cinnamon sugar crisps. Sweet potato salad. Southwest veggie wrap.
"I'm not trying that one," Noah Sanchez, 9, said about the wrap. "I don't like vegetables."
Logan Naeher, 8, sat down at the table, struggling to balance his notepad and grilled chicken dippers with BBQ sauce, his water bottle tucked strategically under his chin.
"This is my favorite," he said. "I definitely want to see it on the menu next year."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.