Portland is thought of as an excellent test market for new products; now that extends even to its elementary schools

DAVID F. ASHTON - Llewellyn Elementary School students prepare to sample new Cinnamon Apple Dippers in a special taste test for a Salem food company. The discriminating palates of Llewellyn Elementary School students helped a Salem-based food manufacturer, Truitt Family Foods, learn more about student reaction to a new food product that's intended for school cafeterias around the country.

Seated at a table in the school's cafeteria on May 15, the company representative explained the process of being in a "focus group" to the students who were to evaluate the food item.

The students listened carefully, then began to sample the product, dipping into it with slices of apple and graham cracker.

"Today we are launching 'bean-based dippers' for schools," beamed the company focus group moderator, Michelle Ratcliffe, PhD. "We already provide hummus for schools, and what we're testing is a 'sweet application' – actually, a navy bean purée with Greek yogurt and apple cinnamon flavor. The idea is 'hide-and-sneak nutrition' in foods kids like."

The taste-testers continued to scoop up some of the dip, smelled it, put it in their mouths, and contemplated the flavor. They examined the appearance and texture of the dip as well.

While the tasting continued, Principal Joe Galati told THE BEE that the day's product testing session came about because, last year, three of the fifth grade students wanted to tell PPS Nutrition Services what they like and didn't like.

"The meeting they put together impressed the adults; and, as a continuation, this Salem company is bringing out a brand-new item to test, and see if the kids here like it," Galati said in hushed tones, as the focus group continued.

The exercise is part of the Westmoreland school's "leadership learning module", Galati said. "And, secondarily, they're acting as our ambassadors and diplomats for the school district. In this leadership role, they have the opportunity to make pivotal decisions about nutrition services, and the way the menu can be enhanced."

When it came time to talk about the product, the sensory acuity of the students proved to be strong. One of them noticed that citrus was used as a preservative, for example. They all contributed ideas that what could make the product look and taste better to them. They also gave feedback about the packaging and label design.

After the testing session, fourth grade student Eideann told THE BEE what she thought of the product. "I didn't like it that much, because it actually tasted quite bitter, and left a rather sour taste in the mouth, and I suggest serving it with something more sweet or more mellow."

"Being part of a focus group was a cool experience," Eideann added.

Who knows? Perhaps these students will help this Oregon company fine tune their product in a way that will be enjoyed around the world.

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