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Program enables students to snack on fresh fruits, vegetables

October 19, 2009|By JANET HEIM

Students in five Washington County elementary schools are getting an education in more than the required academics. Through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, they are learning the value of healthy eating, and being exposed to an array of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The program began as a pilot program under the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, receiving an additional push from the 2004 Child Nutrition and Reauthorization Act.

The bulk of the funding comes from the 2008 Farm Bill, with $40 million available nationally this year and growing to $150 million in 2012.

It operates once or twice a week during the school day and is separate from the lunch program. The foods are usually served as afternoon snacks before the students head home.

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The funding available this year for Washington County amounts to about $50 per student for the school year, so in-season fruits and vegetables are served to help the money stretch further.

Thanks to a grant, this is the second year students at Bester Elementary, Eastern Elementary, Fountaindale Elementary, Salem Avenue Elementary and Winter Street Elementary have been part of the program. Last year, Boonsboro Elementary was included, but did not qualify this year.

"It's wonderful. It's given the kids an opportunity to have lots of different fruits and vegetables that they may not normally have available to them," said Ellen Hayes, principal at Eastern Elementary School.

School systems apply to the state to be eligible and must be able to demonstrate their ability to operate the program successfully, as well as offer some nutrition education, said Jeffrey Proulx, supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Washington County Public Schools.

They must reapply for the grant every year. Schools were selected based on the demographics of the school, and number of students receiving free and reduced meals.

"It's about getting healthy snacks in front of kids," Proulx said.

Proulx said the success of the program was apparent during Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week. At schools with the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, students were already familiar with Asian pears and really like them.

At Western Heights Middle School, which does not have the program, students were not as receptive to Asian pears, which some thought looked like an ugly yellow apple.

Proulx added that all Washington County Public Schools have fresh fruit and vegetables on the serving line every day, although it might be the more mainstream options, such as grapes, apples and baby carrots.

Through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, they try to serve different varieties of familiar produce, such as Fuji or Granny Smith apples instead of Red Delicious. Grape tomatoes might be on the menu instead of cherry tomatoes.

Students have seen demonstrations on how to eat a pomegranate and how to prepare spaghetti squash. The Washington County Cooperative Extension Service and the local office of the American Cancer Society have been involved with the nutrition education element.

More expensive fruits that students might not be exposed to at home are also served, such as raspberries, papayas and mangoes.

The program provided fruits and vegetables as a snack during MSA testing, and most likely will provide fruit and vegetable trays during holiday parties, as well as healthy snacks during end-of-year field days, instead of junk food.

In some of the five schools, fresh fruit and vegetable stations are also in place in a central area, allowing students who get hungry mid-morning to grab something healthy as a pick-me-up.

"We're going through a heck of a lot of fruit that way," said Proulx, who added that each school has discretion over how the program is run in its building.

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