The man in the apron had a question for students having lunch in the Jefferson Middle School cafeteria.
"How many of you like to eat?"
Everyone raised his or her hand.
"How many of you like vegetables?"
As might be expected, maybe half the hands went skyward.
Undeterred, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture George Greig delivered the message that brought him to Mt. Lebanon School District on Tuesday: Eat food that's been made or grown in your state.
"When you do that, you keep the money that is paid for that in the local community and help the local farmers," he told the students as they ate their meals.
Tuesday's fare was augmented by a special treat, at least for vegetable aficionados. Mr. Greig helped prepare sauteed squash and zucchini from Wexford Farms in Pine. Doing the sauteing, complete with flick-of-the-wrist, veggies-flying flair, was district food service supervisor Dave Misterka.
The results were distributed to the students, many of whom put their usual food aside to sample the squashes.
"I need a fork for it," said Angie Short, one of a group of sixth-graders sitting together at a cafeteria table, temporarily forsaking her spicy chicken sandwich to borrow a utensil and taste the vegetables. She immediately gave them a thumbs-up.
"Delicious," echoed classmate Cara Lynch as she swallowed a bite. And next to her, Maddie Reisinger nodded her head in approval, obeying the good manners of not talking with her mouth full.
The purpose of Mr. Greig's visit was to call attention to PA Preferred, a Department of Agriculture program to identify and promote food and agricultural products that are grown, produced or processed in Pennsylvania.
Tazeen Chowdhury, Mt. Lebanon food service director since 2000, said the district has been focusing on serving locally grown produce for the past two years.
"With those trends becoming more popular, it's great to have kids experience it at such a young age," she said Tuesday after helping to serve students the sauteed veggies. "They're going for seconds. That's what I like."
The district's food program provides unlimited fruits and vegetables for elementary and middle school students.
"We want to encourage them to eat as much as they'd like, what's healthy," Ms. Chowdhury said. "Our school lunches are extremely healthy."
In 2012, the Agriculture Department presented the district with the HealthierUS Schools Challenge award, a program started in 2004 to promote improved nutrition and healthier school environments.
Mt. Lebanon contracts with Pittsburgh-based Paragon Foods, which works with more than 25 local produce farms and 30 dairy farms. Each month, the district features a Farm of the Month, with produce from each location featured on the menu.
October is National Farm to School Month, an initiative to improve child nutrition, support local economies and educate children about the origins of food. Oct. 14-18 is National School Lunch Week.
Harry Funk, freelance: email@example.com. First Published October 17, 2013 1:48 AM