In an effort to provide students with a wider variety of healthy foods at lunch, S.E. Gross Middle School and its food service provider launched a pilot program in March where kids could purchase fruit, yogurt, multi-grain bread and fresh vegetables in addition to the regular hot lunch offerings.

According to Leslie Williams, marketing manager for Ceres Food Group, the school’s food service provider for the past four years, the “Farmers Market” concept is a new one for the company. In addition to S.E. Gross Middle School, the company is also giving the idea a test run at Roselle Middle School and two Catholic grade schools in Chicago.

“After the pilot is over, we’ll evaluate what happened and see what we need to fine tune,” Williams said. “It’ll depend on what the research finds, but we may offer it on a bi-weekly basis.”

At the final Farmers Market offering last month, small groups of students gathered around the special food display, which held packages of fresh pineapple, grapes, tomatoes, carrots, strawberries and broccoli.

Fifth-grader Mona Novikas opted for the pineapple and a mini loaf of wheat bread.

“I really like the fruit, and I thought the bread might be a nice thing to choose, because it comes with honey,” Novikas said.

Fellow fifth-grader Alexis Parcel also bought a package of pineapple slices, while Josue Gonzalez talked up the week’s “spotlight” fruit, blueberries and said he’s enjoyed the strawberries in previous weeks.

“I really like it,” Gonzalez said. “It can be a break from the normal lunch.”

S.E. Gross School Assistant Principal Michael Sorensen said the pilot program has been a hit especially with fifth- and sixth-graders, although eighth-graders have gradually been warming up to the idea.

“The school thought this was a great idea,” Sorensen said. “anytime you can bring healthy choices in it’s a great thing. These kids could choose to bring their money and buy candy bars after school, but they’re choosing not to do that.”

While the jury is still out on whether Ceres will opt to bring the program to S.E. Gross on a regular basis for the 2006-07 school year, Williams said that she’s seen a good response from students at the Brookfield school.

“The things that have been selling out and are more popular are the yogurt and grapes,” Williams said. “Sometimes the vegetables are a little slower to go, but when kids see their peers eating the vegetables, maybe they’ll see they’re not fatal.

“It looks like a success, we’re very pleased,” Williams added.

For his part, Sorensen said he’s be in favor of bringing back the Farmers Market concept back to the school next year.

“I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to continue it,” he said.