They looked, they sniffed, they tasted more than 20 dishes that may — or may not — show up on school menus next year.
Expressions ranged from smiles to grimaces. Occasionally, heads nodded in appreciation or emphatically shook in dislike.
But above all, the more than 200 students, some as young as 9, were intensely serious and enthusiastic about their job, waiting patiently in line Wednesday to enter their opinions on iPads in the ballroom at TPepin's Hospitality Centre, where Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services held its seventh annual Fresh Flavors — Food for Body and Mind Expo.
The students, third- to 11th-graders, were chosen from about 15 schools throughout Hillsborough County to be the judges and perhaps the executioners for new menu items ranging from an apple upside-down cake to a buffalo potato and shredded beef bowl.
"I picked third- and fourth-graders who were my best customers to come here," said Richard Kuchaj, nutrition manager at Cimino Elementary School, explaining he believed this group would give the most useful opinions.
Student nutrition general manager Mary Kate Harrison urged the students to "at least try" the samples of the 21 menu items and reminded them to "chew slowly" to allow all their taste buds to experience the food.
"We make 240,000 meals a day and you represent all of our students when you help pick menu items for next year," she told the kids. "Tell us if you love it, like it, or if it is just okay. If you don't like it or absolutely hate it, tell us that, too."
And they did.
"I loved it," Anthony Ortiz, 11 and a student at Mintz Elementary, said, enthusing over the turkey burger with bacon and pepper jack cheese.
"Eh, I don't like it. It's too sour," Delaney Creech, 9, of Cimino Elementary School, said of the confetti quinoa salad.
The Tajin seasoning sprinkled on slices of fresh tropical fruit got raves from many students.
"I love it, it's great," said Yadellis DeLaCruz, 13, a student at Webb Middle School, as she urged a friend to try it.
Ja'Zaria Gilmore, 10, from Colson Elementary, thought the chow mein chicken bowl was "too chewy."
Jack Williams, 9, a student at Colson Elementary said he tried exactly 17 of the menu items and "liked them all," especially the chicken Parmesan with noodles.
As a reward for tasting and voting on each dish, about a dozen students won Fitbit wristband door prizes and all students were given two movie tickets, including the cost of popcorn and sodas.