VINELAND — The small, round cheese-topped item on their plate  looked and smelled like a mini-pizza. And the 19 students sitting at cafeteria tables at Gloria M. Sabater Elementary School ate it up, just like it was pizza.

But it wasn’t pizza, it was actually eggplant parmesan. When told what it was, students said they’d still like to have it for lunch.

“Mmmmm. This is good,” said Robert Phillips, 9, as he circled the “happy face” on his rating sheet and added “Great Food!” in the comments section.

“I want more!” wrote Abigail Tollinchi, also 9.

Diane Holtaway, associate director of client services at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, was not all that surprised by the enthusiastic response to the eggplant.

“We kind of wondered about it,” she said. “But kids are more adventurous than you’d think. They are willing to try things if you present it in small quantities.”

The center has been working on a “Farm to School” project with area farmers and food processors to develop healthy school lunch items using Jersey Fresh products including eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, greens, blueberries and cranberries.

The center talked with school food service directors and developed several recipes that meet federal nutrition guidelines. It has been taste-testing them with students from local schools including Bridgeton High School and the Gloucester County Institute of Technology. On Thursday, they brought five items to students in the after-school program at the Sabater School. Vineland also is part of a state and federal program to reduce childhood obesity through the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids.

Each child got a rating sheet to rank each item on how it looked, smelled, felt in their mouth and tasted. To rate them, students circled either a “happy,” “okay” or “sad” face. Parents received copies of the recipes to review and had to approve their child’s participation.

“We need your help,” Holtaway told the 19 students, explaining that the center was developing recipes that use fruits and vegetables from Vineland to serve for breakfast and lunch in schools. Flaim Farms in Vineland is one of the participating businesses.

“We want your opinion so we can make any changes,” she said. The center hopes to put two items into rotation in Vineland schools later in the spring to see how they fare when served on a larger scale.

The first item was a berry parfait using low-fat yogurt with granola and a fruit topping of blueberries, cranberries and the secret healthy ingredient — beets. Students liked it overall, although some said they don’t like granola in their yogurt, and a couple said it could have been sweeter. Abigail thought it was perfect.

As staff cleaned up, students sipped water and awaited the second course, pasta wheels with vegetable sauce. A few didn’t like the smell, but most liked the pasta.

The third course was the eggplant, with each child getting one small round that looked like mini-pizza. That was intentional, Holtaway said, to making it look familiar to students and easy to eat. Jeremy Bello, 10, liked it but said he thought it was chicken parmesan.

When told it was eggplant, he said it was still great.

The fourth course was eggplant rollatini — slices of eggplant stuffed with a ricotta-cheese-and-greens filling that included collard greens, kale and spinach. It was topped with a fresh vegetable sauce that the center’s associate director of food technology, Julie Elmer said was similar to the pasta sauce, but chunky rather than pureed. The sauce included zucchini, peppers and fennel.

The rollatini was less popular than the eggplant parmesan and seemed to get more “okay” faces than “happy” faces, but many students still ate the parts they liked. The rollatini also required use of a plastic knife, and Holtaway said it likely would be served at a middle or high school rather than an elementary school.

The final dish was chicken fajita filling. The actual fajita wrapper was not on the list of foods sent home to parents, so it was not provided. Instead students got the filling loose on a plate. Several students asked what it was, but seemed satisfied when told it was the inside of a fajita. It was the spiciest of the items offered but still popular, although a number of students picked out the chicken and left the peppers or onions.

“That’s why it’s good to have it in a wrap,” Elmer said. “They’re more likely to just eat the whole thing.”

The center has a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the recipes, but as a business incubator it is looking for more farmers and outside food processors to make the food once they develop the recipes and show there is a market for them. The center is in discussions with Compass Charter School in Vineland to include items on its menu next year.

“The point is not to have us do it,” Holtaway said. “We want to find businesses that will produce the items. They could do just one or multiple parts of the menu.”

Thursday’s tasting seemed to indicate the student market was strong.

“Are we going to have this again?” Abigail asked.

Contact Diane D’Amico: