INDEPENDENCE -- "I don't have enough hands," exclaimed Chase Lucas, balancing a bowl of Mexican pozole in the crook of one elbow and a cup of Spanish paella in the other.
Though he had just finished lunch, the offer of free food inside the gym at Talmadge Middle School on this day was too good for the seventh-grader to pass up.
That's especially the case when it's stuff you don't see everyday: Pineapple pie from Samoa; Japanese rice dumplings; and Krub, a potato and bacon dish from Norway that tastes better than its name indicates.
Most of it was food he had never tried before, Lucas admitted.
"But it all tastes so good," he said.
Last week, students in a service learning class at Talmadge organized a cultural fair for several hundred of their peers.
Together with teachers, parents and local residents with diverse backgrounds, they served dishes originating from different cultures and answered questions on heritage.
"There are so many people from so many different places, whether it's their heritage or they came from those countries," said Aaron Currier, a teacher and adviser to coordinating students. "It's important for kids to recognize that people are different and to celebrate the differences we all have."
Currier said students in his class were tasked with a communitywide project last year, and came up with the idea of an event to showcase ethnicities that exist in their neighborhoods. So successful was it, school officials asked for another one.
Compared to most Polk County schools, Talmadge could be considered diverse. Perhaps 43 percent of its 700-student enrollment are Latino and Hispanic students. Asian/Pacific Islanders and African Americans account for another 2 percent. Whites make up most of the balance.
Questions of culture and race crop up occasionally at school, said Reba Hoffman, a seventh-grader and fair director. She notices it with cliques based on different cultures.
Andrea Tomayo, a seventh-grader whose parents are Navajo and Mexican, said she's asked about her background whenever she dons her traditional turquoise and silver necklace.
"We thought the fair can help you see how cool and interesting the other cultures are," said Hoffman, who manned a booth about her Norwegian heritage. "Maybe that will make it easier to talk to the other person."
Julia Tomayo, Andrea's mother, volunteered to serve fry bread, beans and other basic Navajo staples. So moved by the event, Julia pulled her son out of Ash Creek Elementary School for a few hours just so he could experience it.
"If you're able to have the kids see, hear and taste different cultures, you're going to be able to show the positives of (diversity), the kids will want to learn more," she said.
Erik Gonzalez, an eighth-grader whose parents are from Mexico, said he enjoyed sampling things like the Greek version of baklava that had been set out -- "it tastes like honey, it's pretty good."
His own heritage is very important to him, Gonzalez said.
"I take it everywhere I go," he said.