FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A raucous mob of first and second graders, jostling for lunch at Hallandale Elementary School, shouts and jumps at the sight of a human-sized banana in their midst.
"They love it," Broward School District intern Ericka Floyd said from within her foamy yellow casing. "Some kids want to bite me."
That's just what school menu mavens want their young charges to do: gobble up fruits and veggies. To that end, Floyd and other staffers often don costumes — corn, grape, carrot, banana and watermelon — to entice kids to eat healthy.
"We're trying to attract attention to the concept that fruits and vegetables are good for you. They're good to eat, they're fun," said Darlene Moppert, a nutritionist who helps fill the bellies of some 140,000 students each school day.
That involves semi-loads worth of comestibles for hungry mouths: 24 million cartons of milk, 3.4 million pizza slices, 2 million chicken nugget servings, 4 million apples and 1.4 million tacos. Those are just a few offerings on the school lunch menu of five items: fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and milk. Students must pick three, at least one a fruit or veggie.
Carlos Aurtado, 6, is a pizza and potato man. "It's like so good," he said of the pizza. Still, "My favorite is mashed potatoes."
Despite an unrelenting barrage of junk food ads, kids often opt for nutritious fare. Marta Gomez, manager of Hallandale Elementary's cafeteria, where some 800 kids chow down each day, serves up to 100 salads every lunchtime. Fruits, too, are popular.
"The apple slices?" Gomez said. "I go through seven or eight cases a day." A case contains 100 packages.
"I ate my apples," Ja'Mari Peacock, 5, announced.
"We eat bananas here," bragged Jamaria Addison, 6.
But kids need prodding to eat healthy. "Their consumption of fruits and vegetables is not where it needs to be," Moppert said. "Their favorite foods are the pizza — who would have thought that? — and the burgers."
So besides costumed interns, Moppert employs other strategies. School foodies host focus groups to see what students like, and conduct "plate waste" studies to see what they don't. They review a feedback Web site where students list preferences, and initiated a program to buy fresh produce from Florida farmers. A team of dietitians plans rotating menus, with popular items appearing twice a month.
Pizza, burgers, tacos and chicken nuggets may seem less than wholesome, but Moppert said ingredients count. The pizza has whole wheat crust and low-fat cheese. Burgers and tacos, lean beef. Chicken nuggets are white meat and baked, not fried.
"We're taking what kids like and are familiar with and making it in a form that's a little healthier," Moppert said.
With the percentage of overweight kids doubling in the past 30 years, stakes are high. "The generation of children of this decade has a lower life expectancy than their parents," Moppert said. "We're trying to reverse this trend."