KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A little here, a little there. A slice of whole-wheat crust pizza, a chunk of sweet potato-breaded pollock, a dabble of low-sodium, white-bean hummus.
Those are just a few of the foods that 6,500 school lunch nutritionists and cooks were sampling as part of a national convention this month in Kansas City, Mo.
Wandering the convention floor at Bartle Hall, they put their taste buds to work on foods and dishes that might someday end up in the promised land: school cafeterias.
This is Tanya Dube's first national School Nutrition Association convention. She's been in the school food service business for just 15 months, and she came all the way from Bristol Bay, Alaska, to get a handle on some of the new, healthy possibilities for school lunch rooms.
"Holy cow," Dube said. "There are so many options here, things I didn't even know existed."
Her favorite happened to be the sweet potato-crusted Alaskan pollock, served from one of the dozens of booths staffed by vendors hoping to catch some business.
It was delicious, Dube said.
"I would love to serve that to the kids," said Dube, who's head cook at her school by the bay, serving roughly 100 kids. "It was a really good, healthy product.
"The healthier, the better, but it has to taste good, too."
You can't just cook what you want, Dube said. "You have to meet different requirements for things you have to serve in schools."
The push for healthier food in schools has taken a turn for the creative. Schools have met new U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for lunches, and now it's all about finding new foods and new ways to present them to students.
For example, one booth offered blended carrots colored both bright orange and bright yellow — more attractive and appetizing than the vegetables students might avoid.
Damion Thompson, a food service manager at Wendell Phillips Elementary in Kansas City, said he has learned new ways to present food from the sessions. And he plans on taking new ideas back to his director to implement in his school.
Some school nutrition cooks, supervisors and directors said they have even seen a jump in foods foreign to students.
"Ethnic foods tend to be healthier than our traditional American foods," Cheri Meeker said, holding a plate of hummus and sliced cucumber.
Meeker, a nutrition-services supervisor for Newberg School District in Oregon, said they have had to try some different foods to meet the requirements set by the USDA.
Starting last year, the USDA changed the requirements on the amount of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and milk schools need to serve at different grade levels. It's so specific that over the course of a week, schools have to serve a dark green vegetable, red or orange vegetable, legumes and a starchy vegetable.
This is the first time since 1980 that the school nutrition national convention has been in Kansas City. It just so happens that Kansas City is the home of next year's president, Leah Schmidt.
Schmidt, nutrition director for Hickman Mills schools, said the changes to healthier foods haven't been a problem for students.
"If we didn't tell them," she said, "they probably wouldn't even know."
For example, some districts use whole-wheat crusts on pizza, while others substitute turkey hot dogs for pork.
Still, Schmidt said a lot of schools allow students to sample possible new foods to get their input on what's on their plates.
It's not just foods; seasonings also help make healthier foods go down more easily for kids.
Kevan Vetter was handing out samples for McCormick's for Chefs — the booth responsible for Meeker's hummus. Vetter and McCormick's have tried to find other seasonings to use in foods instead of salt to lower the sodium.
"It's about small changes that the kids won't notice," said Vetter, executive chef for the company.
"These are flavors that the kids love, but it's got all the nutritious value that they need."