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Taste test: Pinellas students try six new cafeteria dishes

Some are spins on old favorites aimed at exposing kids to fresh Florida produce. Some are inspired by rising numbers of vegan and vegetarian students, and another called the chicken fajita Cheez It bowl sort of weird.

ST. PETERSBURG — Big news hit Pinellas County school cafeterias this school year, with the debut of six new breakfast and lunch items.

Some are spins on old favorites aimed at exposing kids to fresh Florida produce. Some are inspired by rising numbers of vegan and vegetarian students, and another called the chicken fajita Cheez It bowl sort of weird.

The Tampa Bay Times recently visited Perkins Elementary School to hold a taste test with six students in third and fourth grades. Two were vegetarian, one didn’t eat eggs and none had any idea what to call okra.

They liked most of the food, sometimes taking more than a taste. But some kids passed after just a nibble of unfamiliar ingredients.

School lunch has changed considerably in the last 20 years, said Lynn Geist, a longtime food service administrator in Pinellas schools.

“Palates are changing and students care a lot about the flavors,” she said. “We want to keep their interest while also making sure they’re getting the nutrients they need."

To get a pulse on what students crave, the school district held its own taste test in February. About 150 kids tried 21 new dishes, then voted to pick those that were ultimately added to school menus this year, Geist said.

Students at Perkins said they welcome more options. After the taste test, a couple who usually pack their lunch for school said they are considering going through the cafeteria line more often.

“Now that I know what foods they might be serving,” said Averie Fortenbery, “I might try to not bring my lunch again.”

Breakfast Skillet: Seasoned, roasted potatoes and scrambled eggs smothered in jalapeño cheese sauce

The breakfast skillet features seasoned, roasted potatoes and scrambled eggs smothered in jalapeño cheese sauce. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The skillet was a hit with Perkins students — especially Alyssa Hildebrand, 8.

She normally eats breakfast before school, at home. But after tasting the skillet, she’s thinking about mixing up her routine.

Alyssa liked the texture of the entree most: “It’s squishy enough but not too squishy.”

The skillet has a “breakfast taste” to it, added Averie, 8. She said she might try to visit the cafeteria on mornings the skillet is served. Nine-year-old Bryce Griffin, who often eats breakfast at school, said he’s happy there is another option.

Other students liked the dish, too, noting its cheesiness and the fluffy texture of the eggs. A few complimented its subtle spice, though for Jonas Kavaliauskas, 10, the seasoning was too strong.

“The seasoning is not the best,” he said, adding that he likes cheese, but not the nacho-style cheese in the skillet.

Pizza: Florida-grown mushrooms atop mozzarella cheese

A new pizza features Florida-grown mushrooms atop mozzarella cheese. For students that eat meat, the pizza comes with crumbled beef, too. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Pizza is a regular menu item in schools, making it the perfect, unsuspecting vehicle to get kids to eat their vegetables.

A new pizza introduced this month is topped with mushrooms grown in Florida, provided through a partnership with the state Department of Agriculture.

As a vegetarian, Peyton Segraves, 10, was a big fan. “I just love mushrooms,” she said. “Mushrooms and cheese taste really good together.”

For students who eat meat, the pizza comes with beef crumbles, too.

“Most pizzas I see don’t have this good taste to it,” said Averie. “This has stuff that are teeny tiny, and it’s easy to chew.”

The pizza was her favorite dish of the six, she said, even though she doesn’t normally eat mushrooms. It was Bryce’s favorite, too. Between big bites of a cheesy slice, he said the meat and mushrooms made a “good mix.”

Alyssa was the only student who didn’t like the pizza. Unlike Bryce, she said the meat and mushrooms didn’t complement each other. But she did like the texture, saying the crust was cooked perfectly, and noted that having more types of pizza is never a bad thing.

“New pizza is fun,” she said.

Chicken Fajita Cheez It Bowl: Seasoned chicken strips with peppers, onions served over Cheez Its

The chicken fajita Cheez It bowl is a bed of Cheez It crackers topped with fajita-style chicken and peppers. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The chicken fajita Cheez It bowl is the most peculiar of the six new dishes. But kids like it a lot.

It’s a bed of Cheez It crackers topped with fajita-style chicken and vegetables, or what Bryce calls “a good mixture in my mouth.” He mentioned notes of garlic after a few bites.

“It kind of has a good taste to it,” said an unsure Averie, noting that the level of spice in the entree is "the perfect hot.”

Alyssa said the chicken reminded her of taco meat with a “little kick to it.” The best part though, was the orange, square-shaped crackers loved by so many.

“I like the Cheez it,” she said with a giggle, “because it’s a Cheez It.”

Vegan Chili Bowl: Assorted beans over brown rice with seasoned okra

Vegan chili is one of two new vegan items in Pinellas schools. It is a mixture of beans over rice, topped with seasoned okra. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

One of two new vegan lunch options, the meatless chili bowl was a hard sell with some students. It features okra, which not a single student correctly identified.

“The jalapeños look delicious,” said Lainey Ware, a 10-year-old vegetarian who also doesn’t eat eggs, while commenting on the sautéed okra in the dish.

Peyton called the okra “peppers,” too. She said they were soft and liked how they “mushed” when she ate them.

For the same reason, Averie didn’t like the dish at all. It was her least favorite.

“I feel like the green things, they have a little juiciness inside,” she said. “It’s too juicy for me.”

Alyssa and Bryce didn’t like the vegan chili, either. Bryce said it was too spicy. Jonas said he liked the beans but not the seasoning.

“I didn’t like it because it had rice,” Alyssa said. “Well, I like rice. But … the rice and the beans … they didn’t mix well together to me.”

Vegan Buffalo Chickpea Salad: Buffalo roasted garbanzo beans with broccoli, celery, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers on a bed of mixed greens with hummus and dressing

Buffalo roasted garbanzo beans are the star of the chickpea salad, one of two new vegan dishes offered in Pinellas schools. It features a mix of fresh vegetables, hummus and either Greek or Italian dressing. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The chickpea salad has a lot of components, including hummus and garbanzo beans, which were unfamiliar to some students who braved them anyway.

Peyton and Bryce called the chickpeas “nuts.” They each popped one into their mouth and were pleasantly surprised.

“They’re a little spicy, but I like that about them,” Alyssa added. “They have a good crunch, so i think that’s good about it.”

Lainey liked the “kick” from the chickpeas, too, but her favorite part was the hummus, a food she sometimes eats at home. Bryce had never tried hummus before but liked it on a baby carrot.

“I think the dip was good,” he said.

Averie said the best part of the salad was the fresh vegetables, which tasted like they came from a garden. She tried almost every part of the dish, laughing when she couldn’t bite into a crunchy carrot.

She struggled to open a packet of dressing, too, so she was happy to see that the hummus was served without packaging.

“The dip, you don’t have to open it,” she said. “You can just do it right away. You don’t have to open it or anything.”

Breakfast Scones: Iced blueberry and lemon

Scones are being served during breakfast this year in Pinellas schools. Shown here are flavors lemon and blueberry. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Most everyone liked the scones — small, slightly sweet biscuit-like cakes meant for breakfast. In Averie’s opinion, the cafeteria should serve them every day.

“The scones, especially the blueberry ones,” she said, “they should just serve them all the time.”

Peyton liked the blueberry scone but not the lemon. Lainey gave the opposite review.

“I usually don’t like lemon, but I like the lemon scone because the lemon gives it flavor,” Lainey said.

Averie pointed out that “usually lemons are sour.” But the lemon scones are sweet.

The scones were her second-favorite of the six dishes, and she has ideas about how to bring them and her first pick — mushroom pizza — together.

“Maybe on Friday, when we have pizza day, they could give out scones,” she said, “because Friday is a fun day."