WESLEY CHAPEL — It's 11:15 a.m. on a Friday. Two lines stretch halfway through the Wiregrass Ranch High cafeteria.
They seem to never get shorter.
What's the attraction? A mound of seasoned beef smothered in melted cheddar, with a side of chips, salsa, sour cream, jalapenos and rice. All this, plus two side dishes and a drink, costs $3.
"When there's nachos, you'll normally see everybody there," explains junior Jesus Suarez. "You can make your own creation. It's pretty cool."
Pizza's another hot seller. Chicken patty sandwiches also move quickly.
They're typical fare for teenagers who often haunt fast-food joints and mall food courts, says cafeteria manager Pam Zundel.
"It's very hard to break (such eating habits)," Zundel observes. "But we're trying to introduce things."
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This year, the Pasco school district added several new options to the lunch menu at the request, primarily, of adults who said that's what their children want. New items include a hummus platter, a cottage cheese platter, a Caribbean shrimp and rice bowl, and a Miami pork rice bowl.
In the first two weeks of school, those offerings haven't attracted many takers.
High school students purchased 13,220 individual 5-inch pizzas in those two weeks, but just 316 yogurt platters. The shrimp bowl did slightly better with 1,533 sold, in the same range as the chef's and Caesar salads.
"The chicken Caesar salad is actually delicious," says senior Clarissa Stokes, who's just nibbling off her neighbor's plate and drinking a huge bottle of water. "The cottage cheese or the hummus, no. Half the people don't know what hummus is, so they're not going to eat something that looks funny."
Senior Rei Cotto shares that opinion. He brought his own lunch on this day, but when he eats cafeteria food, he says, "I usually have two chicken sandwiches, or pizza."
What about salad? He shakes his head in the negative as he crunches potato chips. Cottage cheese? He makes a disgusted face.
It's about choices
This is not a universal point of view, of course. Food is subject to personal taste and, given choices, kids won't all gravitate to the same thing.
Junior Rebecca Johnson, for instance, says she never eats cafeteria food, preferring homemade sandwiches and fresh fruit. Junior Monica Marin, on the other hand, says she loves the school lunch.
"The mashed potatoes taste like mashed potatoes," she says. "The fries are good. There's nothing really bad."
The only reason Monica hasn't tried the hummus platter, she says, is because she hasn't seen it in the line.
School district food and nutrition planners are counting on kids' willingness to try new things before they completely give up on any menu option. They plan to assess sales after a couple more weeks to determine whether some items can viably remain on the menu.
"If the feedback and the numbers are telling us it's not so popular, we'll be deciding what to do," food and nutrition department supervisor Julie Hedine says.
Student comments and sales will play an important role in that process. But nutritional values of the weekly offerings also are a key factor.
"Those things have to go hand-in-hand," Hedine says.
"The issue is, how do we make them happy and still live within our commitment of providing healthy options?"
Some students might not head for a salad as a first choice. But as the district provides more nutritious items, they might begin to try them.
Many of the changes are transparent, such as the move to whole-grain cookies and to lower-fat meat in the uber-popular nachos. Others, like the hummus, take more effort.
At Wiregrass Ranch, Zundel says she's seen a little progress in that regard.
Unlike the scowl-inducing cottage cheese, which she has already replaced with yogurt, the hummus has seen modest growth in sales.
The first week, the cafeteria moved five of the platters. The second week, the number jumped to nine.
Next week, Zundel plans to offer students free samples on Monday before the platters hit the lunch line again on Tuesday. Maybe, she says, that will make a difference.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.