COLUMBIA — The zucchini casserole served for lunch at Paxton Keeley Elementary School on Wednesday was yellow with cheese, but bits of green and orange poked up through the top.
“It looks like nachos,” said Adrienne Smith. But neither she nor the other soon-to-be third-graders sitting together would try it.
8 cups zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces, with peel
1 to 2 cups shredded or cut-up carrots
1 chopped onion, optional
4 cups croutons
1 cup sour cream
2 cups shredded or crumbled cheese
1 Tablespoon onion powder
1/2 cup butter (for stovetop version)
1/4 cup butter, melted (for other version)
Boil or steam zucchini until it's soft. Drain. If using a stovetop, saute carrots and onion in 1/2 cup butter until the vegetables are soft.
If not using a stovetop or onion, add carrots to the zucchini and boil together. Drain. Add onion powder and melted butter.
Mix the above together. Add croutons, sour cream and 1 1/2 cups cheese.
Put in buttered, 2-inch-deep casserole-size baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes uncovered. When top is lightly brown, take out and sprinkle with remaining half-cup shredded cheese to melt.
Future fifth-grader Nya Mack was braver. “It kind of looks like puke, but it looked good, too, so I decided to try it,” said Nya, who pronounced the meal "good."
The zucchini casserole was a recipe from kitchen manager Suzanne Sullivan.
“It’s something I’ve done at home for a long time, and my kids love it,” she said. The zucchinis, along with the cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, yellow squash and carrots also served in the salad bar, were all grown in Missouri.
Columbia Public Schools is participating in Farm to School, a program that brings in locally grown produce in for lunches. Also, during summer school this year, Grant, Lee and Paxton Keeley elementary schools have been part of a pilot program that allowed students to add rice and beans to their meal every day.
“It is something that we thought was a next step for Columbia Public Schools in the growing trends for the desire to know where our food is coming from,” said Laina Fullum, the district's nutrition director. “Kids need more opportunities to be better connected to Missouri land and what is produced here in our state.”
The goal of the Farm to School program is to get kids to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, to support area farmers and commerce and to reduce environmental impact, Fullum said.
It was Superintendent Chris Belcher’s idea to add the rice and beans. Paxton Keeley has gone through 28 pounds of beans and 10 1/2 pounds of raw rice a day, Sullivan said. At lunch on Wednesday, Belcher sat down with his bowl of rice and beans at a table where Adrienne and her friends were eating.
He asked the children who had tried the rice and beans. Two hands shot up, but Micaiah Rice and Peyton Wright had taken the rice but not the beans.
“You have to taste it,” Belcher urged them. “Go back and get some beans.”
Neither did. Micaiah said rice is one of his favorite foods because it is also his last name.
"Our problem is getting these guys to try things like this because we don’t have the same marketing as McDonald's,” Belcher said as he dug in to his bowl of zucchini casserole.
During a different lunch shift, fifth-grader Chase Wright also took just the white rice. “I thought that it didn’t have much flavor, so I went over there and put ketchup on it. Then it tasted like ketchup,” Chase said.
Fifth-grader Sophia Bourgeois has her own way of fixing her rice and beans. “It’s good — I put the meat in the rice," Sophia said. "I mix the shredded cheese with the melted cheese and put it in the meat.”
Students were encouraged to take at least a fruit or a vegetable from the salad bar as they went through the line.
“If they’re not trying anything yet, our goal is to get them to try at least one thing because that can open the door to more options,” said Elaine Hassemer, principal at Paxton Keeley. “Today, I’m pushing the dried cherries. The kids initially thought they were raisins.”
What produce is offered to students depends on what is in season. Missouri Food 4 Missouri People provides local food to public schools. Co-founder Jean Gaddy Wilson said most of the food comes from within an hour and a half radius of Columbia. “Our farmers are thrilled that they are also growing for kids,” Wilson said.
Wilson said locally grown produce has better “food value” because it’s picked when it’s riper and doesn’t sit around on shelves. “Better fed brains do better in school,” she said.
The district plans to offer more beans and yogurt options to children, Fullum said. Belcher hopes to expand the rice and beans option to all schools.
“School lunches will continue to provide seasonal grown local foods as a priority because teaching children to eat fruits and vegetables is important in the development of lifelong healthy eating behaviors,” Fullum said.