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Leah Lopez, a sixth-grade student at Washington's Van Ness Elementary School, bites into a sweet potato pancake
AP
Prune burgers and sweet potato pancakes could soon be appearing on school menus nationwide.

The government is trying out new products on finicky fifth- and sixth-grade taste testers in an effort to find new ways to use surplus fruits and vegetables.

The burgers, a mixture of ground beef and 4 percent prune puree, and the pancakes passed muster Tuesday with 20 inner-city kids at Washington's Van Ness Elementary School. A raisin-tomato barbecue dip for chicken nuggets also was a hit.

"The hamburger was good. It tastes like a grilled burger," said Mustafa Mattocks, 12, adding that it was better than the usual school fare.

It's also more healthful. A prune burger has about 40 percent less fat than an all-beef patty. The prune burgers served Tuesday were flame-broiled by the processor to give them the grilled flavor.

James Brown, 11, liked the barbecue sauce. "It tasted like A-1."

The Agriculture Department is under pressure from Congress to bolster produce prices by buying up surplus crops, including cranberries and prunes, and giving them to schools.

In a similar test last year in the Los Angeles area, the sweet potato pancakes were very popular, as were snack bars made with dates and almonds. Broccoli guacamole was a dud, and so was an asparagus version. The prune burgers and pizza topped with a prune-based sauce got better reviews.

USDA eventually intends to hold regular school taste tests in seven regions of the country.

"What we're really trying to do is find new uses for the products we've been purchasing," said Robert Keeney, deputy administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

There's such a glut of prunes that the department is paying growers to destroy 20,000 acres of plum trees. USDA also has been paying farmers to destroy potato and sugar crops, and last year sharply restricted the amount of cranberries that could be brought to market.

Schools, however, are leery of trying new products without evidence that kids will accept them.

"We like the fact that USDA is testing these products with kids. It adds credibility. Kids' tastes and my tastes are very different," said Barry Sackin of the American School Food Service Association.

The children at Van Ness tried 10 different items and were asked to grade each on a scale from 1 (worst) to 5 (best) on taste, smell, color and overall appeal.

"Remember, all the kids around the country are going to hold you responsible for this," sixth-grade teacher Brenda Maxwell told one of her students who seemed reluctant to give bad grades.

Franklin Murphy, 10, gave all 5s to the sweet potato pancakes, but he frowned at all three versions of grapefruit juice he was offered, including those mixed with different kinds of grape juice.

Janee Henry, 12, gave the turkey-prune hot dogs a 3 on color but 5s on everything else, including taste. "It's light and I'm used to dark colors," she said.

The kids weren't supposed to know what was in the food until the ate it, but some had seen a display of the products before the test started.

Still, the presence of plums in the burgers turned off some of the kinds. Both the government and the industry officially refer to prunes as "dried plums."

John Lund, a USDA official who oversaw the taste test, said there's no reason for schools to disclose that the burgers contain prunes, since there's too little of the fruit to have the laxative effect for which prunes are known.

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