By Marilyn Bay Drake, Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association
Gone are the days when the school lunch lady plopped a pile of “chef’s surprise” on the plate of students with a take it or leave it attitude. The problem of days-gone-by school lunches was that kids, more often than not, left it and by so doing also left behind the curiosity and willingness to try new foods.
Today’s innovative school lunch professionals, like Natalie Leffler, who is employed by the Nutrition Services Department for Greeley-Evans School District 6, are trying new things to get kids to make healthier food choices in the school lunch line and throughout their lives. One such strategy is buying locally-produced foods.
District 6 made its first purchase of locally-grown produce, a cherry tomato crop costing $239 in the 2008-09 school year. Last school year, 25 percent or $920,000 of its annual food budget was spent on local produce, meat, poultry and dairy products. Purchasing local produce is worthwhile to the district for a number of reasons.
“We support investing dollars back into the local community and decreasing the miles food travels,” said Leffler.” Local produce also provides increased nutritional value as well as better quality, freshness and flavor.”
She said the decision to purchase locally requires more staff time than purchasing lunchroom food through conventional channels. It also requires developing partnerships with local growers. District 6 Food Service has learned more about agriculture, and growers have learned the constraints and opportunities of selling produce to the local school’s food service. Both appear happy with the arrangement.
Nutrition experts recommend increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables for better health, and studies show that children who develop good eating habits are far less likely to suffer health problems later in life than children who do not learn to eat a balanced diet. For this reason, Leffler and her colleagues are adamant about helping their students develop good eating habits. Here she shares some of the strategies that have helped her school lunch program get kids to eat more produce. Some of these tips may be helpful for parents wishing to incorporate more produce into their family’s diets.
- Model (adults) good eating habits.
- Offer new foods; don’t “serve” them. This takes the pressure off the cook as well as the kids to try and like new food.
- Make good food available and easy to eat. Cut up vegetable sticks in the fridge are more likely to be consumed than a package of unwashed, uncut carrots.
- Offer a new food repeatedly. Research proves that accepting a new food takes time.
- Encourage kids to take part in planning meals, writing grocery lists, and helping with kid-friendly kitchen duties. This empowers and allows kids to learn alongside the adults.
- When introducing a new fruit or vegetable, offer it with an old standby or favorite food, and try only one new food at a time.
- Plant a garden to get kids excited about eating fruits and vegetables that may be unfamiliar. This could be as simple as a few herbs in a counter top container. Studies show that planting and nurturing a garden increases the likelihood a child will eat a new or previously rejected vegetable or fruit.
- Buy locally and talk about the grower of the produce. In the District 6 cafeterias Leffler markets and promotes fruits, vegetables and the farms they came from with posters, special events, and classroom curriculum.
- Eat a family meal together with no distractions, focusing on the food and the conversation.
The Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association urges consumers to look for produce with the Colorado Proud designation in grocery stores and farmers’ markets as well for on-farm outlets. For more on Colorado produce seasonal availability, nutrition information and to find a grower near you, log on to:http://coloradoproduce.org/produce-directory/