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Growing healthy kids

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 21, 2010
  • Sarasota
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Children know who cleans their teeth. They know who treats them with antibiotics when they’re sick. But do they know the path that food travels to end up on their fork?

Sarasota County Food and Nutrition Services Department
seeks to do just that with Farm to School, a nutrition-and-education initiative it began piloting in 2006. The program establishes relationships between school children and local farms by bringing in locally grown food products and giving preference to seasonally available foods grown within 50 to 150 miles of Sarasota County.

“It’s a known fact that nutrients are retained in fruits and vegetables that are fresh,” said Beverly Girard, director of the Sarasota County Food and Nutrition Services Department. “The longer it sits, the less nutrients available. Fresh, local food has tremendous benefits, and we take our responsibilities very seriously.”

Girard’s decision to adopt the program came from her family’s farming background in Indiana, and as a dietician, it made perfect sense to her to try to use locally grown foods in schools.

“We’re trying to teach children a number of things — nutrition, how food is grown and its color,” Girard said. “Often times, we’re taking it to our youngest children, so it’s brand-new information for them. If you ask a child what their favorite vegetable is, most will say some sort of potato. We’re hoping to introduce all of the wonderful varieties (of vegetables) — especially those grown right here.”

Farm to School is a way for school lunches to taste great and support the local community — but eating them must also be fun. Hosting fruit-and-vegetable tasting parties with students has proven to be one of the most successful ways of getting children to eat their nutrients and to also consider them a main part of the menu. Girard has found that if she makes eating exciting, the negative stigma fades. Parents have been shocked at the program’s progress, because kids are starting to love carrots, grape and cherry tomatoes and fresh broccoli — with low-fat ranch dip, of course.

“They call the broccoli ‘little mini trees’ — anything that makes it fun,” Girard said. “A lot of the fun is experimenting with something new to their diet with peers in the classroom. Often times vegetables are introduced to children as punishment.”

The national Farm to School program extends well beyond just salad bars and fresh foods. The program also includes curriculum development and experiential learning opportunities, such as planting edible school gardens, farm tours, classroom sessions, culinary education and educational sessions for parents and community members.

“We were supposed to take a farm tour this week, but with the freeze, it fell through,” Girard said. “It breaks my heart that we used to bring tomatoes in from California, but we did. Unfortunately, we might have to do that for a short while until the effects of freeze have gone away.”

Schools are being invited to celebrate Farm to School Day Tuesday, Jan. 26. Girard said they hope to have celebrations in school cafeterias and invite staff to dress as farmers, as well as have farmers come and speak to the kids, so that children make the connection between farms and how produce is grown. Hi Hat Ranch and Jones Potato Farm are just two supporters of the local Farm to School program.

“We’ve had a number of parents who tell us how amazed they are with getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables,” Girard said. “One parent’s little boy was begging his mom to buy sugar-snap peas in the grocery store. Usually, they are asking for spaghetti or Lucky Charms.”

Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected]

The Food and Nutrition Services Department has revamped the school menu by adding some color to it.

The color-coded nutrition program is called “Go, Slow, Whoa” and was developed by the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to help guide students toward making healthy food choices.

The system divides the five food groups into three categories, in which the colors green, yellow and red work like a traffic light.

Foods written in green are “go” foods; foods written in yellow are “slow” foods; and foods written in red are “whoa” foods.

“Go” foods are the lowest in fat, sodium and calories. They are also rich in vitamins, minerals and nutrients important to health. “Slow” foods are slightly higher in fat, sodium and calories than “go” foods and should be consumed less frequently.

“Whoa” foods contain the highest amount of fat, sodium and calories, and many are low in nutrients. These foods should be eaten only on occasion, and portion sizes should be monitored.

Many foods can become “whoa” foods if eaten in large quantities and in locations other than school, such as at home or restaurants. The foods on the school menu are coded based on portion sizes, school recipes and products. For information, call 486-2199. 


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