The University of Illinois Extension provided a lunchroom tasting at Altman Primary School on Wednesday as part of an ongoing program to get children to eat fruits and vegetables more frequently.

Kaitlyn Streitmatter is the Unit Educator for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sponsored by the U of I Extension. She said the program’s work focuses on low-income populations in area schools. SNAP-Education offers help with environmental nutrition assessments.

“It means we follow a model where we also try to change the environment in which (the students) eat,” Streitmatter said. “In the lunchroom, it might be where we place the foods or (the name) of foods so we provide assistance to food service staff.”

For the last two school years at Altman Primary School, 1730 Highwood Ave., students have gotten the opportunity to sample a fruit or vegetable on a monthly basis. The food for some students is a new food. For others, it is something they have eaten in the past.

Kellie Roecker has been with the U of I Extension since August 2016. She visits schools to give samples. She stopped by Altman Primary School on Wednesday.

“I brought spinach leaves for the students to try last year,” she said. “I was going table to table passing out the spinach and one of the second graders made a comment, ‘I’m not trying that.’ Another student sitting nearby him announced, ‘Ms. Kellie, I love spinach. My family buys it, but we eat it cooked.’ The second grader decided to try the spinach leaf, and by the look on his face, I knew he was glad he did. He and the others asked for more. Before I left, he asked me where I got it from so he could ask his mom to buy it for him at home.”

Second-grade student Miles Wilson said he had already tried the red bell peppers that were offered on Wednesday and knew he liked them. He recalled blackberries and raspberries had been offered in the past, and he liked those, too.

This tasting session did change one of his classmate’s minds, he said. Another student in line said he did not like red bell peppers, but decided to try it anyway. Wilson said the boy liked it after he tried it.

Miles enjoys trying new foods, said his mom, Amy Wilson. 

“I made buffalo chicken spaghetti squash for (my husband) Mike and I for dinner and something else for the kids, because I didn’t think they’d eat it,” Amy Wilson said. “Miles asked if he could try it. He likes to watch the kids’ cooking shows and likes to try new things.”

Streitmatter said the food the students try are items that will be served at lunch. They offer a sample in hopes the children eat what is being served rather than throw it away.

“We work with a variety of schools in effort to reduce tray waste,” Streitmatter said. “It also educates kids about foods so they eat it at home, too. We are in the process of researching if providing the tasting means it is more likely the kids will eat it next time it is offered. We’re doing our research in Creve Coeur, not Pekin.”

Simply trying a bite of food earns students a sticker. Streitmatter said that one time hummus and pretzels were offered. Some kids said at the time that they did not like hummus because they did not like beans. After tasting it, they were surprised to find that they liked it.

Altman Principal Lynn Brown said she has witnessed the same results. 

“This happens often,” she said. “Students then sometimes select the food item from our school food service (the next time it is offered).”

Roecker hopes the students will decide to eat more fruits and vegetables as a result of her visits.

“I believe the benefits of having lunchroom tastings is the exposure to fruits and vegetables the kids may not have tried before,” she said. “Providing students with the opportunity will hopefully encourage them to make healthy choices and to eat what is served on their lunch tray. It is so rewarding when the kids ask me where they can get whatever we are tasting that day. I love to see their smiles.”