Hunks of honeydew melon, slices of kiwi, slivers of green pepper and medallions of zucchini sat before a row of students, who were busily chomping on corn dogs and gulping down chocolate milk.
A group of Mayo Elementary second-graders stopped their lunching frenzy for a moment to view the greens warily. They picked at the fruits and vegetables slowly, puckering their lips at the sour kiwi and nibbling nervously at the peppers. Some, like Aignia Jones, 8, skipped the veggies altogether and slurped up a small bowl of Ranch dressing provided to make the peppers and zucchini more palatable.
It's not easy to get children to eat the recommended three to five servings of vegetables per day, plus two to four daily servings of fruit, but last week, dietitians from the county Health Department spent lunchtime at the school to see if they could get students excited about healthy eating.
"It's like watermelon, but sweeter," dietitian Ann Heiser Buzzelli said, prodding the students to try the melon.
This is the second year the Health Department has hosted a "tasting of the greens" at local elementary schools. This year, a grant allowed the agency to talk about healthy eating at four elementary schools, but the Health Department has launched similar nutrition programs at dozens of elementary, middle and high schools in recent years as a part of a larger push to curb childhood obesity.
In Anne Arundel County, 16 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are overweight and an additional 17 percent are at risk of becoming so. The northern parts of the county had an even higher prevalence of overweight children. In Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park, four in 10 children are overweight or at risk.
"The data we see here and nationally should compel us to do more to encourage healthier lives for children," said Dr. Jinlene Chan, a Health Department physician who studies the issue.
The data are based on a 2006 survey of local pediatricians and family doctors, who confirmed the suburban county reflects the nationally troubling trend of heavier children spending more time on sedentary activities like watching television and playing on the computer and not eating enough fruits and vegetables. The same study showed 48 percent of the middle school students surveyed watched two to four hours of television a day, while an additional 15 percent spent more than five hours in front of the set.
The local data are limited, Chan said, so it's hard to say anything about trends and whether the numbers of overweight children have increased locally. She said the Health Department is taking the data seriously and hoping events like "tasting of the greens" have a long-term effect on stemming childhood obesity.
" 'Tasting of the greens' is our way of introducing children to food they may not have tried before," she said. "We're trying to get them to a new normal. Maybe the normal now is picking up dinner at a fast-food restaurant or riding a car to school even though you live two blocks away. Having a long-term impact means that we have to look at those things and change our culture, our habits."
Habits are tough to change. As Health Department dietitians waited with plates of greens, fourth-grader Mary Carrette plunked a fried chicken sandwich on her plate and whizzed past the bowls of crisp green salad, red apples and celery and carrot sticks before picking up a carton of chocolate milk. It wasn't until lunchroom cashier Marilyn McDonald prodded her to get a vegetable that Mary sauntered back and settled on three small stalks of celery.
"I had vegetable soup for dinner last night, so I got all my vegetables and didn't feel like eating any more today," the 9-year-old said afterward.
Along with lessons about nutrition in schools, tackling childhood obesity will take a coalition from sectors of public and private life, Chan said. Walking to school and getting physical activity outside means government and law enforcement officials must work to ensure neighborhoods are safe, she said. She acknowledged that data show the obesity crisis is particularly concentrated in communities with higher populations of low-income families, where grocery stores might not have a wide offering of fresh vegetables and where processed foods are more affordable than fresh.
"The work can't just stop with us [at the health department], it has to include schools, businesses, families," Chan said.
At Mayo Elementary, the older students were more willing to give the vegetables a shot than their younger peers. Fifth-grader Cameron King tried the green pepper for the first time.
"Tastes like grass," he proclaimed. "And I know what grass tastes like, cause I play football."
He tried the kiwi next, giggling as the furry skin tickled his throat.
"I'll ask my mom to buy this," he said. "It's nice... sweet ... kinda juicy."