Campaign encourages schools, students to support local farmers and eat healthy

    The lettuce that lands on the plates of some Gwinnett Schools students is grown in an Athens greenhouse without soil under the care of an unlikely farmer clad in shorts, sneakers and sunglasses.

    The plants mature in water to preserve their nutrients until they are harvested. Some 12,000 heads a week are bound for chains like Whole Foods and the refrigerators of public school kitchens.

    Bib and romaine lettuce are part of the food chain established in a national program that pushes farm-fresh pickings for public school kids. The Farm to School campaign encourages kids to eat their fruits and veggies by teaching them more about the science and economics of agriculture and the nutritional value of local crops.

    At Atlanta Public Schools, photos of succulent apples grown by Mercier Orchards in North Georgia are advertised on signs as the fresh picks of the day. The fruit is served up quartered to entice students too busy to gobble a whole apple to try a slice.

    “We want students to taste the food and enjoy the flavor,” said Marilyn Hughes, nutrition director for Atlanta Public Schools. “We even provide the farm the apples came from for families who may want to take weekend trips.”

    The metro Atlanta Farm to School movement challenges public school to commit to purchasing a portion of their foods in Georgia so students get the benefit of locally grown produce. Atlanta Public Schools, Decatur City Schools and Cobb County Schools were among the first participants in the local program, which was launched nationally more than a decade ago.

    Gwinnett County Schools made the movement a district-wide priority this school year after starting small last year. Georgia-grown Farm to School fruits and vegetables are featured each month in the cafeterias of the state’s largest district. A school system master chef creates new recipes to show how the food can be prepared in different dishes each week. Last month, watermelon was served with feta cheese and basil. This month’s pick is bell peppers.

    “It’s a great opportunity for the students,” said Karen Crawford, nutrition education coordinator for Gwinnett Schools, who teaches students the benefits of the food they eat. “We know that the minute produce is harvested, it begins to lose some of its nutritional value. The quicker you can get it in front of the kids, the more nutritional the produce is.”

    All 50 states have schools that participate in the program, which covers about 2,000 districts nationwide, said Erin Croom of Georgia Organics, coordinator of the region’s Farm to School effort.

    “For every dollar that is spent on local food in school lunch, you will have $1 to $3 that circulate in the community,” Croom said, adding that buying local produce can also save the district money. “When you buy fruits and vegetables in season, you are going to have better produce at most likely a better price. I get calls almost every day from a different school inquiring about the program.”

    At Mountain View High in Lawrenceville, some students have noticed the new selections in the lunch line. On a recent day, when bell peppers were served hot with green beans, some students loaded the dish onto their trays while many others overlooked it, opting for pizza instead.

    Senior Andrew Schmidt chose the feature of the day, but mixed it with cheese and broccoli to make it go down easier.

    “It added a little flavor to it,” Schmidt said.

    Classmate Ryan Kuhlman ate the green beans but left the bright red peppers behind, overwhelmed by the combination.

    “Once the green beans were gone, I was done,” he said.

    Student Britteny Scott, however, was pleasantly surprised.

    “I ate some even though I’m not a pepper person. They were actually pretty good,” Scott said.

    Teachers and faculty members also scooped the dish onto their plates, though not every health-conscious adult indulged.

    “I haven’t eaten a pepper in my life and my mother would tell you that in a minute,” said Coley Krug, 62, community schools director at Mountain View. “I still don’t think I’m ready.”

    Some critics of the Farm to School program say it is beneficial in theory, but may lead to more trash in dumpsters.

    “If we have options, there are going to be a lot of wasted vegetables,” said Cody Sulek, a junior at Mountain View.

    Still, Georgia State University professor Rusty Tchernis, who has a doctorate in economics, believes Farm to School could do wonders to promote healthy eating habits, if students have real ownership in the program along with districts. A national study he recently co-authored that examined the habits of about 13,500 elementary school students participating in the federal school lunch program found that those who ate school lunch gained weight faster than brown-baggers. Tchernis said kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables they planted and picked.

    “You have got to involve the child in the whole process from growing the food to serving the food,” he said. “The more they learn, the more empowered they will feel to start making better choices.”

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    This entry was posted on Monday, September 13th, 2010 at 1:36 pm and is filed under Health Notes. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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