For Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, know your customers is one of the most important rules of school food service.
“You have to respect their palate,” says Cowens-Gasbarro, District Nutrition Coordinator for Windham Raymond RSU #14 School District in Maine.
High schoolers, for instance, who have mature tastes, will try daring options like Wild Blueberry BBQ Sauce with Pulled-Pork Sliders. But the majority of kids in grades K-5 would eat noodles with butter every day if given the choice.
“They don’t have the broadest palates,” says Cowens-Gasbarro. “You have to make it interesting but not too interesting.”
That helps explain why her Wild Blueberry Bars, which she introduced a few years ago as a healthy dessert item, were made into a creditable breakfast item this past winter. They have been hugely popular with kids ages K-12. Any kind of “bar” has a treat-like quality that maximizes its menu appeal. And with Wild Blueberries, whole-grain flour, oats, sugar, and corn starch, the bars provide a tasty way to serve up the fruit and two grains the USDA requires at breakfast each day.
“It gets the kids engaged to have something besides just cereal every day,” says Cowens-Gasbarro, who serves approximately 1,200 kids for breakfast, and 2,200 kids for lunch each day.
“Kids love Wild Blueberries and it feels like a dessert to them but it’s a whole-grain breakfast bar,” she says. “They love it!”
What’s more, each item must be easy to serve, efficient to prepare, and easy for students to gobble up during the 20- to 25-minute time constraints of the lunch period.
“It’s super crowded, super noisy, and we have a short amount of time to get through the line,” she says.
She knows that Wild Blueberries carry a special brand cache. The native superfruit satisfies parents’ appetite for fresh, local foods. “It’s a local product for Mainers, so it’s familiar,” she says. “I think it appeals to parents because we grow them locally and we have them in abundance year-round, thanks to IQF freezing technology.”
Because frozen Wild Blueberries are so easy to prepare and versatile to pair, they’ve become a go-to ingredient whenever she’s looking for new ways to engage kids to eat healthy. She uses Wild Blueberries in smoothies all the time—which has been an effective way to entice them to try something other than cereal, or other same-old standbys. “Kids love smoothies and they’re a great way to get them to come down for breakfast or lunch,” says Cowens-Gasbarro.
What’s more, she feels good about the powerful nutrition she knows is packed in each bite or sip. Wild Blueberries contain one-third less sugar than cultivated varieties, and twice as much disease-fighting antioxidants. Research indicates that Wild Blueberries can boost kids’ moods, concentration, and memory.
Above all, they are delicious, says Cowens-Gasbarro.
She savors the superfruit herself long after the school year concludes. “By mid-July, we enjoy fresh Wild Blueberries to snack on,” she says. She makes Wild Blueberry Jam made from fruits she picks near her home. Because the flavor is so sweet and fruits contain pectin, her recipe requires just two simple ingredients: Wild Blueberries and sugar.
“It’s cheap and easy,” she says, “and I’ll get 20 pounds and make a ton of Wild Blueberry jam.”