Thursday, October 17, 2013

Students Reap Rewards of 'Farm to School' Program

The Wentzville School District Child Nutrition Department is always looking for ways to get fresher, higher-quality foods onto the plates of students in school cafeterias. The goal of the district is to offer the best possible nutrition during the school day so students can achieve their academic goals, while also helping to reduce the country's growing child obesity epidemic. The “Farm to School” program is one example of these efforts.

Farm to School is a program that connects schools with local farms with the goal of serving healthier meals in school cafeterias. The program also provides agricultural, wellness and nutritional education opportunities while supporting local and regional farmers. Child Nutrition Director Susan Raster began a farm-to-school partnership in the district two years ago.

“There has been a push for the last four or five years to incorporate more fresh produce, and we want to support our local farmers, but Farm to School is also about educating students and teaching them where their food comes from,” she said.

The farm that supplies the district with fresh produce is called Three Girls and a Tractor and is located in nearby Marthasville, Mo., in the fertile Missouri River bottoms.

“The three girls are our daughters, and I guess I’m the tractor,” owner John Kopmann said. “It’s a family farm, we have about 20 acres that we cultivate. The girls help us in our family business. We also supply produce for Rockwood, Warrenton and the Wright City school districts.”

The district buys in bulk from Three Girls and a Tractor, and in recent weeks deliveries have included 1,000 pounds of watermelon and 800 pounds of cantaloupe. The produce is fresh and right out of the field, and there is often as little as 48 hours between harvest and when the fruits and veggies show up on students’ lunch trays.

The farm produces watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, sweet corn and several varieties of squash.

“The fresher the produce is, the more nutritional value it has,” Kopmann said. “Sometimes if kids get a chance to try some of these new things, they find out that they’re really good!”

Vegetables like eggplant are a little harder for Raster and the Child Nutrition Department to incorporate into the menu, but part of the challenge is to expand students’ knowledge and tastes. During weekly “Taste it Tuesdays” the cafeterias puts out samples of vegetables that students might not otherwise experience. Recently, students were introduced to yellow tomatoes and fresh zucchini, and the cafeteria managers at each school survey the students and keep track of what students are eating to help determine future menus.

On a recent Tuesday at Frontier Middle School, eighth-grader Kale Catchings sampled the jambalaya that used some of the fresh onions and peppers from the farm.

“I tried the jambalaya, it was pretty good, and I think the fresh ingredients help the taste," he said. "I think there are a lot more nutrients in fresh produce, and obesity is a problem now in our country, so it’s important to keep kids healthy.”

“Student reaction has been phenomenal, they absolutely love the watermelon and cantaloupe, and they do eat some raw zucchini as well,” Raster said. “We’re trying to show them that there’s more than one way to serve these vegetables.”

Depending on the weather, the deliveries can continue well into October, and there will soon be plenty of pumpkins and gourds available. This year the first frost or snowfall won’t necessarily mean the end of fresh produce.

“We have a high tunnel or a hoop house, it’s a type of greenhouse,” John said. “It allows us to grow lettuce, spinach and squash during the winter as well.”

The Child Nutrition Department is hoping to be able to offer more fresh produce in the winter months, so students in the district will continue to benefit from healthier menu options.
(from St Charles County Journal)

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