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Healthy Schools Project a big hit

By Michelle Mascarenhas and Sandy VanHouten
September 7, 2003

If a student didn't understand math, would a teacher say, "Kids don't like math; never mind, they don't need it"? The same is true for fruits and vegetables. Offer farm-fresh, skillfully prepared items and guess what? They like it, and they get it!

Ventura Unified School District is entering our third year of the Healthy Schools Project, featuring a Farm-to- School Salad Bar in nine elementary schools, along with taste-testing, cooking in the classroom and garden-enhanced nutrition education. Many students can't wait to get to the cafeteria to apply the nutrition lessons they're learning in the garden and classroom.

"The children are making good choices and learning to eat new foods," said a preschool teacher at Saticoy elementary about the salad bar. "This is better than anything I could do in the classroom."

A third-grader recently showed his mom how to read a nutrition label -- a skill he learned that very day.

As children learn by doing, providing healthy options in school cafeterias is key to instilling lifelong healthy eating habits. By participating in farm-to-school programs, students are also developing a commitment to the environment in which they live and to the farming community that feeds them.

Hooking young people on healthy fare early on will be important to reducing the alarming obesity and diet-related disease rates. Currently, more than 25 percent of people under 19 in the United States are overweight or obese -- a number that has doubled in the last 30 years.

Less than 13 percent of school-age children eat the recommended amount of fruit, and 20 percent eat less than one serving of vegetables.

As childhood obesity and diet-related diseases have gained international media attention, school food service directors have been catapulted into the center of the child nutrition debate. On the one hand, they are asked to sell popular foods that will raise revenues, resulting in school food services selling brand-name items of low nutritional value in cafeterias.

On the other hand, food service directors are expected to provide healthy options on lean budgets.

Farm-to-school programs can thus be a boon to food service directors seeking to serve tasty, appealing and healthful foods while also seeking to improve their bottom line. In the VUSD, by integrating hands-on nutrition education on local farms and in school gardens and cafeterias, Food and Nutrition Services was able to increase lunch participation, increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption and decrease food waste districtwide.

A study conducted by the UCLA School of Public Health found that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, such salad bars increased student consumption of fruits and vegetables by an average of one serving a day -- a huge gain in nutrition terms.

This year, Congress will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act providing a valuable opportunity to get school food service staff the tools they need to be proactive in developing innovative strategies. Legislation in both the House and Senate has been introduced to create a new program: "Assistance to Farm to Cafeteria Projects."

If enacted, the new program would provide a one-time infusion of resources up to $100,000 per school district or nonprofit organization to upgrade cold storage, preparation and serving facilities (such as buying more refrigeration or salad bars for fresh produce). Funds could also be used for initial labor costs for setting up systems to purchase from local farms, planning seasonal menus based on regional products, or training staff.

Districts could even utilize the funds for hands-on nutrition education linking local agriculture to healthy diets through school gardens, visits to local farms and field trips to farmers markets.

At the same time, the viability of regional farms -- key to local food security -- will be assisted as community dollars flow into community-owned businesses. By investing in the capacity of school districts all over the country to buy from farms in their own regions, "Assistance to Farm to Cafeteria Programs" will help spread taxpayer-supported federal farm and food program funds to local communities across the country.

According to the National Farm to School Program, there are now more than 325 districts purchasing local farm produce across the country, serving more than half a million children.

VUSD has been successful in developing innovative strategies that are getting kids to choose fruits and vegetables, instilling lifelong healthy eating habits.

Providing federal seed money to expand these types of programs is a must if we are to ensure that all communities benefit from the types of win-win solutions that farm-to-school programs provide.

-- Michelle Mascarenhas is a Food and Society Policy fellow and former director of the Center for Food and Justice, which houses the National Farm to School Program in Los Angeles. Sandy VanHouten is Child Nutrition Services director for Ventura Unified School District. She can be reached by e-mail at

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