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Kids Give Plum Burgers a Thumbs Up!


Plum burgers. Sweet potato pancakes. Turkey and plum hot dogs. Those are just some of the foods the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been testing in school lunches to see whether kids like the taste. The results have been encouraging -- which could mean both a way of using surplus foods and more-healthful school lunches for kids. Included: Advice on budgeting strategies and tools from some experts.

Possibly coming soon to a cafeteria tray near you: sweet potato pancakes, hamburgers mixed with plum puree, and barbecue sauce made from raisins.

Before you turn up your nose at such culinary delights, consider this news:

Students at Van Ness Elementary School sample dishes made with surplus foods.
(Photo: USDA)
Many of those more-healthful school lunch offerings received a thumbs up from students in taste tests run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service.

"The hamburgers were good," said Latia, a sixth grader at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C., who participated in a taste test in January 2002. "They tasted normal."


The USDA conducted six tests in two years at schools in California and Washington, D.C., to determine whether kids will eat school lunches that include certain surplus foods, according to John Lund, head of food quality assurance for the Agricultural Marketing Service. The foods were prepared by vendors who contracted with the USDA.

"We're trying to show what you can work into foods kids like, so meals can be lower in fat," Lund said. "It's a win-win situation for agriculture." About 20 percent of the food on school cafeteria trays comes from USDA purchases.

Some of the commodity foods the USDA has purchased in large supply from farmers include sweet potatoes, dried plums (formerly known as prunes), raisins, cranberries, cherries, dates, almonds, and peaches.

"We have a mission of assisting domestic agricultural producers [by purchasing certain foods]," Lund told Education World. "But we sometimes have trouble finding homes in schools for the commodities we purchase."

Schools have been reluctant to take some foods -- which are purchased in a raw state -- because they then have to find ways to serve them. So the USDA, searching for new ways for schools to use the foods, created a plum puree, which can be mixed with ground beef to create lower-fat hamburgers and with turkey to make hot dogs, a raisin barbecue sauce for chicken nuggets, and cookies with dates and almonds. All the foods arrived at the schools prepared -- they just had to be warmed up.


Students were not told what ingredients the foods contained until after they were done eating, noted George Chartier, a spokesman for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. If a student said he or she liked something and then said "yuck" after finding out that it contained plums or sweet potatoes, that was a good lesson in not pre-judging something, Chartier said. "So the test was both tasty and educational!"

Which items did the Van Ness students endorse? Eighty-five percent rated the plum burgers as "very good" and 80 percent ranked the sweet potato pancakes and apple cranberry pie as "very good." Ninety-five percent of students said they would eat the hamburgers again.

Latia, 12, said she wouldn't mind if plum hamburgers were served regularly in the cafeteria. Neither Latia nor Taneshia, another Van Ness sixth grader, were excited about the taste of the hot dogs, however.

Taneshia called the potato pancakes "OK" but said they were not as good as french fries. She also liked the barbecue sauce: "It tasted just like regular barbecue sauce, just a little hotter," she addded.

The USDA planned to continue to expand its food testing, said Lund.

Van Ness principal George Moore was glad his fifth and sixth graders participated in the taste test. "We hope we'll see some of those items in our lunch food," Moore told Education World. "It's a good way to prepare meals so they taste good and are better for students."