Five-year-old Karina Munoz squinted her eyes, plugged her nose, covered her mouth and stared in horror at the bizarre-looking snack on the napkin in front of her:
A small piece of green bell pepper.
"Yuck!" she said. "I am not going to try that. I won't like it. No way!"
"Remember when we read the Sam book?" said Bertilia Guzman, Karina's kindergarten teacher at Caldwell Elementary School. "Remember Sam-I-Am? Remember he didn't want to try something?"
"Green eggs and ham!" several students answered.
"That's right! And when he finally tried them, what happened?"
"He liked them!" the students said.
"That's right. And then, remember? He wanted them everywhere!"
Guzman's students know the familiar Dr. Seuss story. But for many of them, the crisp, shiny piece of bell pepper was more unusual and unnerving than green eggs and ham.
So are many other fruits and vegetables they will taste this year — some for the first time — as part of a healthy-snack program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Seven Wichita elementary schools are participating in the program, which pays for $50 worth of produce per student this school year.
Teachers at Caldwell, College Hill, Enterprise, Franklin, McLean, OK and Stanley elementaries will give students a fruit or vegetable snack twice a week and teach them about healthy food choices.
Many Wichita students don't eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, said Karla Stenzel, physical education coordinator for the district. The new program, administered through grants from the Kansas Department of Education, aims to test the old adage: Don't knock it till you try it.
"We want to encourage students to try the cucumbers and try the tomatoes and try the grapes, because they might learn to like them," she said. "Our goal is to have students learn that healthy foods are tasty."
Wednesday was bell-pepper day at Caldwell, where at 2:30 p.m., fifth-grade teacher Kinsey Peters grabbed a bag that contained a whole pepper and some that had been cleaned and cut into chunks.
Peters explained that peppers can be green, yellow, orange or red. She demonstrated how to remove the stem and seeds.
"Can anyone tell me what kind of foods you might cook this in?" she asked the class.
"My mom had a whole pepper she emptied out and stuffed with meat," said Milan Jenkins. "Then she roasted it in the oven, and it was so good."
Peters asked how many students had never tasted a green bell pepper. Nine of the 21 fifth-graders raised their hands. In Guzman's kindergarten class, more than half said they had never tasted a fresh bell pepper.
"I'm going to give you a piece, and I just want you to take a little nibble," Peters said. "Smell it. They smell really, really good."
Cindy Rabinowitz, a PE teacher at Enterprise Elementary, said students have been excited to try new fruits and vegetables. Those who like them and eat them regularly love to have a fresh snack during the day, she said.
"The kids just come in real excited when they hear, 'The oranges are ready. Come and pick them up,' " Rabinowitz said. "Our rule is, you have to touch and taste one. Just one."
Many come back for seconds, she said.
So far students have eaten grapes, bananas, cucumbers, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers and carrots. Teachers say the menu will get more exotic as the year progresses, with items such as mango, papaya, jicama, blackberries, spinach and mushrooms.
"We'll try to stay with what's in season," said Rabinowitz. Some schools include low-fat or no-fat ranch dip with certain vegetables. Others encourage kids to taste them plain.
Nearly 170 schools in Kansas received grants through the fruit and vegetable program.
At Caldwell Elementary, 10-year-old Braxton Davis took his first bite of a raw green pepper and smiled.
"It's halfway like apples," he said. "Crunchy."
Milan, whose favorite food is french fries, said he would "definitely" eat bell peppers again, and would like to try orange and red ones. "It was wonderful and great," he said.
In the kindergarten room, Janay Hampton urged her skeptical, squinch-faced classmate Karina to try the bell pepper. "It's good, just eat it," she prodded.
Karina sniffed, then licked, then bit a tiny corner from her piece of pepper. "It tastes good," she said. "Cold and crunchy."
She ate the whole thing.