They despised the fish tacos.
And that was before they tasted them. The words fish tacos on the menu were simply appalling, they said, punctuating their displeasure with groans and moans.
On Wednesday morning, 175 students from across Hillsborough County showed up at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover to rate 22 potential offerings for the coming school year's menu. Some offerings, such as pizza with whole wheat crust and lean pepperoni, earned positive reviews.
MaryKate Harrison, general director for the district's student nutrition department, said the expo was a good opportunity to interact with the school's "customers" and present them with healthful options. It's modeled after a program that started in Orange County.
Critics say schools need more home-cooked type options for kids, she said, such as the turkey pot roast or beef teriyaki dishes that debuted at the event.
Whether kids actually pick those foods in the lunch line depends on presentation and whether they've seen it at home, she said.
"Those are something that a normal 10-year-old would go through and say, 'What's that?' " she said.
Last year, Harrison said, the school district gave students almost 5 million servings of pizza — and just 420,000 of broccoli. If kids are going to choose pizza, she wants to make it as nutritious as possible, she said.
Elementary, middle, and high school students swarmed around Strawberry Crest's auditorium Wednesday morning, balancing plates on their taste rating clipboards.
For each dish, they could circle one of three smiley faces: Love It, Like It or Dislike It.
Many students said the food they rated compared favorably to the local fare at their schools during the year.
Some of the dish samples, like pepperoni pizza, were sentimental favorites, although the buffalo chicken pizza got marks off for being too spicy. Teriyaki beef dippers and spring rolls were come-from-behind surprises.
The fish tacos couldn't catch a break.
Before she took her first bite or looked at the food, Ruey Lamas, 9, said she was hungry, but would be discriminate in her choices.
"If I don't like something, I'm spitting it out," said Lamas, who attends Mary Bryant Elementary in Tampa.
The tacos lived up to her low expectations.
"I hated it," she said of the taco, a fish stick in a wheat wrap topped with cole slaw. It was cold, she said. It had mayonnaise. It was gross.
She wasn't alone.
Java Royal, 18, who attends Tampa's Jefferson High, said he would rig his fish taco taste test.
"I don't want to try that," he said. "I'm gonna make up something. I don't want to throw up on my walk home."
Hilary Lehman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.