October’s kale salad was a riotous affair, given that it was our first time doing the taste tests and the kids’ first time seeing the garden teacher in the cafeteria offering things to eat in little plastic cups. A few kids surprised me by spreading rumors that I was handing out seaweed. A small contingent were somehow convinced that I was offering tree leaves, similar to the wet oak and maple plastered on the parking lot outside.

I’m the FoodCorps service member for Gaston County, North Carolina, and I’ve just recently finished serving my second “Harvest of the Month” round of cafeteria taste tests. I’ve also just recently finished cleaning sweet potato out of the stitching of my shoes, apron, pants, shirt sleeves and watch band.

We have a unique arrangement in Gaston County I lovingly refer to as the two-headed monster: last year’s FoodCorps service member, Allison Marshall, was hired on by Cooperative Extension and is now my supervisor. Since I arrived, we work in mischievous tandem to accomplish things like cafeteria taste tests of local produce. Allison had established an awesome precedent for FoodCorps in Gaston County, and made it really simple for me to move directly into a positive relationship with our schools.

In September, we sat down with Nutrition Services, introduced me, and offered our services as cheerleaders for any local produce items the cafeteria serves. They accepted, and in October, we served taste tests of kale salad- kale, shredded carrot, and sunflower seeds with citrus vinaigrette. The cafeteria served local kale on the lunch line the following week; that was the point at which I was accused of handing out wet tree leaves.

But also: I’m happy to report that over half the children told me that they liked it, whether they did or didn’t, because they’re sweethearts and because “free samples” in the cafeteria was such a fun novelty that I think they wanted to make sure we came back.

Last month we served local, baked sweet potatoes with a little bit of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. The cafeterias are serving local sweet potatoes the exact same way this week. For everyone involved, the sweet potatoes are inarguably an easier sell than kale- but regardless of what we’re serving, the kids are just excited we’re there offering something for them to try.

Part of me expected the kids to laugh at us for offering sweet potatoes as a novelty. I was truly surprised by how off the mark that expectation was. A shocking number of kids told me that they’d never tried sweet potatoes before. It’s not that they’ve never been offered sweet potatoes- it’s just that they’ve never, for whatever reasons, made an independent decision to try them just for the sake of trying them. My favorite thing that I heard- and I got to hear it more than once- is, “Whoa, it’s good!” Hey, try it guys- it’s good!”

Another thing I love about doing taste tests is the effectiveness of a little dramatic flair.  The best way that I’ve found so far to get an entire table to try is to walk right past them and pretend you’re not going to give them any at all. “This table? Oh, this table doesn’t want any,” will have kids screeching like injured hoot owls when they don’t even know yet what it is you’re serving.

Sarah Dixon is a FoodCorps service member in Gaston County, North Carolina. If you’re interested in applying to join FoodCorps, visit the FoodCorps website. Applications are open now through March 24th.