WATERVILLE — Ten-year-old Eva Burdin plucked pieces of roasted carrot and parsnip from her plate and took two bites, her eyes searching the ceiling as she chewed.

“The carrot tastes sweet,” she said. “The parsnip is chewy. It tastes like a cooked carrot. I think it tastes organic. I would have it on Thanksgiving or something.”

Across the table from her in the Albert S. Hall School cafeteria, Savanna Scanlin, 11, said she liked the carrot, but it didn’t taste really great.

“It’s a so-and-so taste,” she said. “I took a bite of the parsnip. It’s a little bitter. It tastes like raw potato. I’m very picky with my food. I don’t like cold foods. It kind of takes away the flavor.”

The girls were among 70 fifth-graders taking part in a farm-to-school taste-testing event Wednesday at the school that included a discussion with Nell Finnigan, of Misty Brook Farm in Albion, which supplied the vegetables, and Sam McClean, a FoodCorps service member who has been working with the children every day at the school since September. He will continue through the spring semester and all the next school year.

FoodCorps is part of AmeriCorps. Service members work in schools and with educators and community leaders to help encourage children to eat good food and lead healthful lives.

McClean has been teaching the Hall School students about nutrition, engaging them in hands-on activities such as gardening and cooking, and ensuring them access to school meals created with produce from local farms. The students grow lettuce, basil and micro-greens in the hallways at the school and soon will plant their annual outdoor garden.

“He’s doing fabulous,” fifth-grade teacher Mary Dunn said of McClean’s work with children.

Dunn explained that the school for four years had been contacting University of Maine Cooperative Extension to try to get a FoodCorps worker, and this year it finally got McClean. The taste-testing Wednesday was sponsored by Maine Agriculture in the Classroom with grants funded by money residents pay for Maine agriculture vehicle registration plates.

The FoodCorps program is working, according to Dunn. She said, for instance, at the beginning of the school year, students made cole slaw with cabbage and carrots they grew in the school gardens and then ate the slaw. Ever since then, when school cook Ann Marquis makes cole slaw, the children can’t get enough of it, whereas previously, few touched it.

“She can’t keep it on the salad bar,” Dunn said. “They eat it all.”

At the beginning of the year, only 20 students were in the school’s Lunch Time Garden Club; that number has expanded to 110.

“It’s just kind of exploded this year,” McClean said.

Club members plant seeds, sing garden songs, make posters about food and grow food both inside and outside the school.

Fifth-grader Adrianna Fisher, 10, said she loved the quesadillas McClean and her classmates made with goat cheese, spinach and salsa.

“I tried to savor every bite of it, It was so good,” she said. “Sam is a great person to teach stuff like this because he doesn’t leave a point out, like make sure to wash potatoes before you cook them. And he’s a really comical guy.”

McClean and Finnigan talked to the students about farming and fresh vegetables, with Finnigan asking them questions about what they think is needed to grow vegetables and explaining her work on the farm, which includes gardening and driving a tractor.

“Right now it’s spring,” she said. “I’m spending a lot of time in the greenhouse, starting seedlings, thinking about what I’m going to grow this year. In the fall, I spend most of my time harvesting vegetables I’m going to store for the winter so I can eat them and sell them.”

While many of the children said they had eaten carrots before, few raised their hands when Finnigan and McClean asked how many had tried parsnips.

“I think it’s great. I love doing stuff like this,” Finnigan said after the event was over. “I think it’s important for us, as farmers, to be trying to reinforce getting kids in schools eating more of what we grow. There can be this elitist stigma about local food, and the more we do things like this, the more we break that barrier down.”

Fifth-grade teacher Uri Lessing said the school is lucky to have McClean, who helps strengthens the school community.

“We are really grateful to have such a dynamic personality as Sam is,” Lessing said. “He really enriches our school community.”

McClean created vegetable skewers with the roasted parsnip and carrot, adding garlic and onion powder, as well as paprika. Four batches of students came through the cafeteria Wednesday to take part in the taste testing, for a total of 280 students — the school’s entire population.

Adam Cullen, 10, said the parsnip was really good.

“It tasted like potatoes. I like potatoes and I’m not really a great vegetarian, actually.”

McClean, 27, came to Waterville from Oregon, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from Oregon State University. He said he had been applying for a couple of years to be a FoodCorps service worker and finally was accepted and assigned to Waterville.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “Waterville was way easier to make a home than I was expecting.”

He said his goal is to make the program self-sustaining by involving the community. His program will partner with Colby College to do summer gardening, and Colby will supply the garden plot and provide summer interns to work with the students.

“Colby has been incredible,” McClean said. “They really bend over backward to help us out, so it’s been awesome.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17