Introducing fresh vegetables to school menus could soon get easier for Louisiana schools with this new program _lowres

Advocate staff photo by AMY WOLD -- Fresh sweet potatoes were on the school lunch menu at Dufrocq Elementary School Tuesday as the final part of a year-long pilot program from LSU Agricultural Center to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to school menus. Dufrocq was one of three schools in the state that participated.

Nine-year-old Jamie Nava took a glance at his lunch at Dufrocq Elementary School Tuesday and thought it included some funny-looking eggplant, but on closer inspection, he realized it was sweet potatoes — not from a can but freshly roasted from the oven with a little bit of sugar on top.

Proudly wearing a sticker saying he had tried the sweet potato, Jamie said he liked it.

It’s the kind of reaction LSU Agricultural Center staff have been working toward during the first year of a pilot project called Harvest of the Month to test how to get fresh fruits and vegetables into school lunches.

Starting with just three schools, Dufrocq, Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in New Orleans and North Bayou Rapides Elementary School in Alexandria, the pilot program has run its course in East Baton Rouge Parish. However, it appears to have paved the way for schools next year to get a choice on whether fresh sweet potatoes will be on the menu.

Ann Savage, extension associate with LSU Agricultural Center who has been running the program, said the school system plans to put sweet potatoes on the bid list each month, and individual schools can choose whether to serve fresh or canned.

It’s a small step in what is a large vision of getting more farm-to-table eating into schools. With the pilot project, the schools offered a new item each month — earlier this year it was yellow squash, which some children thought was yellow cucumber.

The program, although not the food, is paid for through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Grant Fund coordinated by the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

Savage said she’s seen changes from April when the first time squash was served and many children were uncertain about it, to last month when it was being devoured. Handing out stickers to children who give the sweet potato a try on Tuesday is just a little incentive to get children to try a new food.

For Cedrione Graves, 8, that’s all the incentive she needed.

“I wanted to get a sticker,” she said, who said her two stickers showed she tried it twice. “And it was good.”

Getting fresh food on school menus where there is short staffing and sometimes limited storage for fresh ingredients can be a challenge for some schools, but the pilot project was meant to show that overcoming problems can be done, albeit slowly.

Mary Dixon, child nutrition program manager at Dufrocq, said serving the fresh vegetables does involve a little extra work, but the program worked much better than she thought it would and doesn’t cut into the school’s food budget.

“They love the sweet potato, and they love the yellow squash,” she said. “They taste it; some like it and some don’t. Most of them do.”

In fact, she had students ask her when they could have another particular vegetable again on the menu, so it’s something the children remember.

“It’s promoting our state’s agriculture and what we grow,” she said.

Carl Motsenbocker, professor with the LSU Agricultural Center, said the program also showed how the delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables could be done.

“We’ve actually learned a lot,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

Some of the stumbling blocks include transportation and storage of fresh produce for some schools. Also, some small staffs at most schools have to feed large populations of students, Savage said.

At the same time, it’s something students seem to be warming up to.

“One of the students saw me walking down the hall and said, ‘What do we have today?’ ” Savage said.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.