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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Where Food Comes From

Air Date: Week of

A program in Hartford, Connecticut aims to connect school children to nutrition by having students visit the farms that provide produce to their school cafeteria. Tom Verde reports on this new school lunch and education program.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Let's face it, there are now a lot of kids who seem to be congenitally allergic to fresh fruits and vegetables. They're the ones who would agree with the attempt some years ago by the US Agriculture Department to declare ketchup as a vegetable. These youngsters see pizza as one essential food group and French fries as the other. I should know. A couple of them live at my house. Many school lunch rooms seem to have given into this trend. They would never dare serve children fresh broccoli or a peach that hadn't spent most of its time on the planet smothered in syrup inside a can. There are exceptions, of course, and reporter Tom Verde is going to take us on a visit to an intriguing one in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. As part of a farm to school education project, a group is linking local growers with public school cafeteria suppliers, and in the process the kids are learning more about the value of good nutrition.

(Children's voices)

VERDE: It's lunch hour at the Quirk Middle School in downtown Hartford, one of 3 public schools participating in the farm to school pilot program. Franks and beans and tuna fish grinders are on the menu today, together with a couple of new items this year: fresh pears and apples from a local orchard.

(Voices continue)

VERDE: The produce has been a hit, say cafeteria workers. Quirk and other public schools in the program now go through 30 cases of fresh fruit each week. But for every apple or pear consumed, there are still plenty of corn chips and candy bars in the diets of many public school kids. According to recent USDA surveys, 35% of the children enrolled in the national school lunch program don't eat any fruit, while 25% never touch a vegetable.

REALE: What they need to learn is that there are choices other than what Madison Avenue is feeding them commercially on TV.

VERDE: Fran Reale is a local chef who volunteers at Quirk Middle School as part of the farm to school program.

REALE: And they think they have to have the Fruit Loops, they have to have the Lucky Charms, they have to have this. And they are children, so they don't really have a position from which to judge that information.

VERDE: But if kids were given the opportunity to learn more about where fruits and vegetables come from, says farm to school project director Elizabeth Wheeler, they may be more eager to give them a try.

WHEELER: They need that exposure, so that they understand that their well-being, environmental well-being depends on taking care of the land and taking care of it responsibly. And so food is a -- is a medium for getting that message across.

KELLIHER: [on megaphone] So let's take an apple today, you want to lift the apple up. Put some pressure on the stem by lifting the apple up and that breaks the apple away from the tree without hurting the tree or hurting the apple.

VERDE: Megaphone in hand, farmer Brian Kelliher guides a group of boisterous seventh and eighth graders from Quirk Middle School through his family's farm in rural Enfield, Connecticut. Here, they pick apples and pumpkins and see firsthand where the food in their cafeteria comes from. The farm to school project encourages such field trips, and helps teachers from various disciplines bring lessons learned on the farm back into the classroom. Science teacher Doug Renfrew.

RENFREW: We're studying about things like how soil like this is laid down through erosional processes and sedimentation. And then how that soil is then used by the farmer, perhaps tens of thousands of years later.

FARMER: [Calling to kids] This is purple cabbage. And this is cabbage, and then those peppers, right there, and those over there is apples, and those over there is --

CHILD: Hot peppers.

FARMER: Very good! Yes...

VERDE: From farmer's field to downtown Hartford's farmer's market, the lesson continues as kids identify and buy produce, picking up a little math while they're at it.

CHILDREN: We're trying to figure out --

CHILD: The pounds!

CHILD: Yeah.

CHILD: The weight, the ounces, the bushels, the kilograms and --

CHILD: And all the things that we see.

CHILD: Yeah. And the tons.

VERDE: In addition to helping kids learn more about agriculture and nutrition, the farm to school project is also trying to help local farmers like Harold Tevras of South Glastonbury sell their produce to the schools. A market which Tevras says can be unpredictable.

TEVRAS: Well I tell you, what I tried a couple times and it didn't, it just didn't work. I would package stuff and I was all set for them, and they'd call and they'd order an order. The next thing, the next day they'd call back and they'd cancel it because they had enough on hand, and then they would order 1 or 2 boxes. And for me to come out of Glastonbury to deliver 2 boxes just wasn't worth it, you know, wasn't worth it for me.

VERDE: Recognizing there was a problem, Hartford Food System addressed the issue by inserting a distributor this growing season between the farmers and the schools. Yet from the school system's point of view, the bottom line remains a hurdle. Jeff Sidewater is the assistant director of food services for the Hartford public schools.

SIDEWATER: There are some additional costs involved in the program. If, for example, we're doing an acorn squash, we have to slice the acorn squash, we have to dig out the seeds from that. It could cost us a little bit more in labor.

VERDE: Sidewater says the state has also compared prices and found that foods shipped in from California or Florida is usually less expensive than locally grown produce. Still, he adds, there are times of year when certain local crops are cheaper.

SIDEWATER: Things such as fresh apples and pears when they're in season, and some of the fresh vegetables, tomatoes, some of the lettuces, cucumbers, carrots, are competitive with what we could get from a shipped in source.

VERDE: Sidewater says the state is studying the cost effectiveness of the pilot program, which may or may not become part of the public school curriculum. The Hartford Food System's Elizabeth Wheeler hopes that the Department of Education will take more than just dollars and cents into account when making its decision.

WHEELER: We'd like this to be institutionalized. In other words, the food education become part of the education of every child in the school system, so that they can make their own choices about fresh produce and they can appreciate it and understand the, you know, the nutritional value, the effect of their purchasing, of their consumption on the greater community.

(Children's voices)

VERDE: But while the state weighs the economics of the program, food service managers like Gonzalo Rodriguez of Quirk Middle School report that the kids appear to actually be learning something about the food they eat.

RODRIGUEZ: Now, since we have these programs, we just don't show them the items but we have some, a little education about and how good the nutritional value. And I start seeing some of the kid s that come and know the difference between the items that we are serving them.

VERDE: Still, some items, such as the dreaded broccoli, remain a tough sell, says Rodriguez. That is, until a local chef who came in to help as part of the program suggested using the vegetable on pizza. The result: a parent's dream. Kids lined up for seconds. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Verde.



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