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Program teaches kids about fresh produce

By Staff | Jan 7, 2011

I’ve never seen a child so happy to receive a raw green pepper. Just the other day, I saw an entire second-grade classroom of children thrilled to receive raw vegetables.

From a paper bag at the front of the classroom, a designated child distributed the peppers, each halved and enclosed in a Ziploc bag, along with an information sheet in English and Spanish that identified the vegetable, offered a few facts about it (the green bell pepper originated in Latin America; it grows on a plant that can be three feet tall; it is the most popular pepper in the U.S.; and it is an excellent source of vitamins C and A), and provided an easy recipe to turn raw bell peppers into baked peppers stuffed with ground turkey, tomatoes, onions, corn and rice.

It’s all part of a federal program begun in 2002 to introduce low-income children to fresh vegetables and fruits. As part of the government’s attack on childhood obesity, schools with a high percentage of kids receiving federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches also receive funding for snacks consisting of unadulterated produce.

“We want to catch the kids young and introduce them to something they never see,” said Laurie Curry, food services coordinator for the Winchester, Va., public schools.

Each state receives federal funding for the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program according to the number of low-income students in its schools. For the current school year, West Virginia schools are receiving $1.4 million, about double the amount received last year.

With this money, school systems are tasked to work with county extension services and state agencies to find local vendors and purchase raw produce. Additionally, parents must be notified that kids are taking part in the program. What began as a pilot program with a few volunteer school systems almost a decade ago, is now fully folded into our national farm bill, state school funding and local programming.

When I heard the teacher say it was snack time, I expected cookies, granola bars or other such fare. The kids were as eager for it as if it were.

Instead, out came peppers, halved and scooped of seeds and veins, skins shiny and green. The classroom teacher said she has seen the children eat enthusiastically of everything the bags have contained, including lemons.

“They ate them right down to the rind,” she said.

Kids have been given such exotics as kiwi and star fruit, and such staples as red and green apples. Curry said her task is to find ways to stretch the budget to incorporate such things as raspberries, which the kids got to see twice. When there were more berries than needed at snacktime, the remainder became garnishes in the next day’s school cafeteria lunch. When they saw the then-familiar red berries, the children were more eager for cafeteria food, Curry said.

“It made them try other stuff on the line,” she said.

Curry admits to some kinks in the program. Elementary-aged kids are far more receptive than those in middle and high school, where it is harder to introduce the idea of raw-food snacks. The program allows administrators to provide a dip for veggies once a month; fruits are never served with a dip.

In Winchester, qualifying for the program means that as many as 65 percent of students in a school also receive free or reduced-price cafeteria meals. With a budget of $500 per week, Curry provides snacks on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons to an entire school, including adults in the classrooms. On some days, kids will get plums or peaches, on other days, carrots or cranberries.

“I get X amount of dollars for the school, for the year,” she said. “I spread it over as many weeks of the year as I can.”