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Birthday cake applesauce? Pinellas students try 28 new school menu items

About 120 students tasted and rated 28 new foods, and most were a hit. Dishes with the best reviews will debut in school cafeterias next year.

CLEARWATER — More than 100 students from across Pinellas County shuffled between tables Wednesday, hungry for their chance to weigh in on what foods school cafeterias will serve next year.

It’s the second year kids have helped pick new breakfast and lunch items, as nutrition officials try to connect students to the food they eat at school. About 35,000 breakfasts and 55,000 lunches are served daily on campuses countywide.

“An adult palate is a lot different than a child’s palate,” said school nutrition specialist Tammy Ayotte. “We’ve got to keep up with that to get these kids to eat ... and make them want to eat with us.”

Student feedback on 28 items on display at Pinellas Technical College this week was entered into iPads and will be finalized Monday. The district will use it to pick the official breakfast and lunch menus for the 2020-21 school year.

About 120 students from six Pinellas County schools participate in the 2nd Annual Student Food Connection taste test Wednesday at Pinellas Technical College. They were asked to taste and rate 28 new food items that could be added to next year's school breakfast and lunch menus. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Dishes ranged from egg-and-cheese breakfast wraps to mozzarella-stuffed garlic breadsticks. There were snacks and sides, too, like Mexican street corn, tachos (nachos made with tater tots) and birthday cake-flavored applesauce.

One of the biggest hits was “chocolatey chip explosion” mini pancakes, soft pillows of sugar served warm inside a plastic bag. Those were 10-year-old Jaedyn Bruce’s favorite.

“The chocolate really comes to my mouth,” the San Jose fourth-grader said between bites. “They’re really fluffy.”

Gabriel Rowe liked the pancakes best, too, mostly because “they have chocolate," but also because they are “soft and squishy.”

For Patrick Suiters, 10, falafel bites stole the show. They were the only vegan option, and flavor wasn’t lacking, he said.

“I was amazed,” said Suiters, also a fourth-grader at San Jose. “It tasted just like a taco.”

Falafel tots and nuggets were offered during the 2nd Annual Student Food Connection taste test Wednesday at Pinellas Technical College. Twenty-eight new food items were tested and rated, and some will be added to next year's school menus. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Across the room, Dylan Strickland, a seventh-grader at Palm Harbor Middle, was shoving a “buffalo chicken frank” into his mouth. Sans bun and toppings, it was still a winner, he said.

“I love chicken, and that it’s not a real hot dog with all that junky meat in it,” said Strickland, 12. “I know that kids would love this food at school because, well, it’s delicious.”

Though 10-year-old Joshua Smith, a fourth-grader at Lealman Avenue Elementary, liked the dill-flavored boneless chicken wings, he wasn’t so impressed with the panko pollock sliders.

“I like fried fish that’s, like, real hard,” he said. “But this was too soft.”

Christopher Hernandez, left, and Frank Neoh, both 11-year-old fourth-graders at San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin, taste "chocolatey chip explosion" mini pancakes during the 2nd Annual Student Food Connection taste test at Pinellas Technical College on Wednesday. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Other dishes that got a lot of attention: spicy chicken tinga tacos, a whole-grain pizza calzone and Asian-style chicken and vegetable dumplings. Kids were quick to pass over tables with dried fruit mix and quinoa.

The maple waffle BBQ flatbread was by far the best dish, according to 10-year-old Marley Martin, a San Jose fourth-grader. All the ingredients tasted “really nice” together, she said, and she liked the combination of sweet and savory flavors.

Classmate Ella Pilling, 10, was surprised at how much she liked the birthday cake-flavored applesauce — and at how much the school district appears to care about students’ food preferences.

“I think their opinion about what we like is very important,” she said. “They’re being really respectful about it and letting us choose what we would like to eat at school."