TAMPA — Mason Ritenauer, 9, possesses a discerning palate.
As one of 200 students invited Wednesday to evaluate possible cafeteria menu items for the Hillsborough County School District’s 2014-15 school year, the Cimino Elementary student took a bite of chicken and yellow rice and declared that the taste was good, but lacking one flavor.
“It needed a little more sweetness to make more kids like it,” he said moments after emptying his bowl and doing a short, hot-footed dance. “Like sweet and sour sauce. But I’ll eat anything.”
This was the fifth year the district’s Student Nutrition Services Department hosted the Fresh Flavors: Food for Body & Mind event at TPepin’s Hospitality Centre on North 50th Street. For two hours, students ranging from third- to 12th-graders roamed 22 tables sampling such items as Korean Street BBQ Tacos, Chili Cheese Pretzel Dogs and Mini Beef Empanadas with Salsa Ranch.
The event gave local and national food vendors a chance to audition their products for the district. Students rated each item on iPads using a scale of Love It, Like It or Dislike It based on the item’s appearance, smell and taste.
Landing on a school menu rotation is a potentially lucrative contract with a district that serves 230,000 meals each school day. Hillsborough County’s student nutrition department is the sixth-largest in the country, said general manager Mary Kate Harrison.
When she started with the district, the food was not kid-friendly, Harrison said. Wednesday’s roster of potential menu additions is an attempt to keep current with what students want.
Which might explain why the top vote-getter was Chicken N’ Waffles, a syrupy waffle stick served with a chicken nugget. Second place went to a Mexican Fiesta Pizza with red bean paste. The third most popular: the chicken and yellow rice dish Ritenauer sampled.
“Kids still go back to the things they are familiar with,” Harrison said.
Other items were hits on the flavor scale but misses in other areas. Four students from Mulrennen Middle School — Anjali Sanichara, 12, Alyssa Personius, 12, Peyton Yee, 11 and Meghan White, 12 — said they all enjoyed the flavors in the Shepherd’s Pie, but not the presentation.
“It would have been better layered,” Personius said. “This was just smushed.”
Harrison later agreed and said the item might still make it to a school cafeteria with a few refinements.
“We want to make it a good experience for them,” she said.