Wild rice is a hit with a group of local elementary school students

WILLMAR -- Annette Derouin had barely turned around when the hands went up at the lunch tables. The kids wanted more wild rice. Minnesota wild rice turned out to be a popular treat with students who tasted it at Lincoln Magnet School in Willmar l...

WILLMAR -- Annette Derouin had barely turned around when the hands went up at the lunch tables. The kids wanted more wild rice.

Minnesota wild rice turned out to be a popular treat with students who tasted it at Lincoln Magnet School in Willmar last week.

The taste test was part of the Farm to School program of the West Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. The partnership works with the schools and with the Steps to a Healthier Willmar program to enable students to participate in the taste tests. So far this fall, students in different schools have tried locally grown apples and squash and now the wild rice.

Derouin, director of food and nutrition services for the Willmar schools, passed out small samples of wild rice while students ate their regular meal of chicken strips, white rice, peas and carrots.

"It looks like worms," one girl said as she looked into the tiny paper cup. "Centipedes" was another description.


But even many who thought it looked "gross" tried a little.

A group of skeptical third graders tried the new treat one by one. Many of them liked it quite a lot, but others weren't impressed.

Leanette Birrueta, 8, said she thought wild rice "tastes like chicken," and planned to talk about the new food when she got home that night. Savannah Mireles, 9, agreed that it tasted like chicken.

The rice was actually cooked in chicken broth, said head cook Barb Gilb. Gilb spent about a week experimenting with how to cook the rice.

The rice at the school was "a little bit moister" than the wild rice he'd eaten a couple times before, said Patrick Lerohl, 9.

For Elizabeth Mangen, 9, it was her first time tasting plain wild rice. "I just didn't really like it," she said. "I didn't like the taste."

Elizabeth said she likes wild rice in soups or hotdishes, though, and she'll continue to eat it that way. "It tastes a little different when it's in soup dishes and stuff," she said.

"At first it looks sorta weird, but it's really good," said Amie Johnston, 9. "I like rice a lot; I thought I'd try something different."


The children could have as much rice as they wanted. Derouin circulated among the tables with a plate filled with the sample cups, each holding a heaping teaspoon of the rice.

The record appeared to be held by a girl who ate 10 sample cups of rice. Many others ate eight and nine tiny cups.

"I didn't think a lot of the kids would eat the wild rice, but once again they do surprise us," said Diane Hillenbrand who supervises the lunchroom. "I think a lot of them had a few helpings."

One boy stopped on his way out of the lunchroom with his tray. "Can I have one more," he asked.

Cafeteria classroom

The taste testing is part of an expanded nutrition education effort through the district's food service.

Each month's menu includes nutrition information. On the day of the taste tests, teachers are given a short informational statement to read during the daily announcements. It lets the students know that they've got something new to try when they get to the lunchroom.

While the students ate the wild rice, Derouin showed them a plastic container with the raw rice, actually a whole grain.


The rice served to the students is Minnesota-grown authentic Anishinaabe wild rice from the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota.

The native rice has a lighter color and is softer and milder than commercially grown wild rice, said Lynn Mader, a nutritionist with the development partnership.

Gilb said she had to do some experimenting to convert recipes to her school kitchen equipment. She ended up steaming it in chicken broth.

"I was really surprised" at how much rice the students ate, she said. "I didn't think it would go over that well."

Gilb talked with cooks at the Cass Lake schools, where wild rice is a standard item on the menu. They said they usually cook it in chicken broth.

"We're trying to help expose kids to a variety of new foods that are nutritious and local, to broaden their taste buds," Mader said. "I think we're building a climate of trying different things."

Working together allows the three programs to combine their efforts to improve nutrition education for children, said Marilyn Bolin of Steps to a Healthier Willmar.

Bolin writes the nutrition information for the monthly menus and provides information for teachers.


"We're using the cafeteria as a classroom," she said. They are using the taste tests to show children that they can "take hot lunch, try new things."

The taste-testing program is a cooperative effort of the three organizations, but it's done at this point without additional funding. Mader and Bolin work with the program as part of their jobs, and Derouin finds the money for the new foods in her budget.

Willmar is one of the few school districts in the state to have such a program, Bolin said.

"It's just Annette wanting to make it work," she said. "It's all done within the means of what's there already."

The three meet to talk about what the next promotion will be. Derouin said she's enjoyed the chance to connect with local farmers for the apples and squash. The staff at Anishinaabe Wild Rice was excited that their product was going to be served in a school, she said.

Cost would be a consideration in serving wild rice at all the district's kitchens, Derouin said. But she might be able to do it on a special occasion or in a blend with white rice.

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