Appeared in Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star February 24, 2012
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett
If you’d like to know—really know what kids are eating for lunch in school, I encourage you to visit a school cafeteria. It is eye-opening. I recently did just that and learned that in elementary school kids often eat unrecognizable foods packaged in plastic and in middle school, after the deemed “healthy” lunch is served, kids literally line up at the trash can and throw away most of their free lunch, then walk over to a food service staff and purchase “snacks” like chips, cookies, brownies, Gatorade, Slushies and ice-cream with money from their pocket. When I asked a food service representative from a local school district why they were selling snacks in the cafeteria at mealtime, thus undermining the free lunches they are trying to make healthier, the answer was what you would expect: Money—needed to supplement the food service budget. The fact that they sell “baked” chips was supposed to quell my concern.
Granted it isn’t easy feeding literally an army of children—thousands a day, two meals a day in some school districts! The logistics of it are mind-boggling and I would by no means blame the folks in food service who work hard every day to serve our kids, some of them very needy who really would miss a meal if not for their school breakfast or lunch. And recent policies reducing calories and improving nutrient contents of school lunches have made huge improvements. But overall, we have a long way to go in terms of teaching our kids, both at school and at home, to enjoy real, delicious, healthy food, to understand where it comes from and to eat in moderation.
There are, however, some hopeful initiatives, around the country and right here in the Valley. The Farm to School movement is one such bright spot. According to the www.farmtoschool.org “Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers. The Texas Farm to School program, according to the website, “…will continue to grow and is now available to all of the 1,200 school districts in the state. This program is revitalizing and invigorating the state’s farm economy by providing a stable annual market and funding for many Texas grown fruits and vegetables.”
Farm to school can take on many forms, including pre-school to farm education, policies that ensure local growers supply school lunch programs, thus enhancing the small farm economy, and school gardens that give kids hands-on experience growing food and supply some or all of the produce for the school cafeteria.
Idea Frontier Academy, a public school in Brownsville that is part of the Idea Independent School District, has taken school gardening to the next level. Their “garden” has grown into a farm, located next to their campus in the Southmost neighborhood of Brownsville, near the Rio Grande. The school farm features a school “farmer” and covers one acre including a teaching center, composting area, 18 raised beds, a greenhouse made of recycled plastic bottles, and producing hundreds of pounds of produce, much of it consumed by the students in the school cafeteria. Farmer Elizabeth Garcia is a petite lady with strong convictions. She spends most of her day working and cultivating the large school farm, and teaching the kids to appreciate organic, locally grown produce and to incorporate it into their diet.
The farm is also integrated into academics. A recent example of a classroom activity was a third grade “produce party”. “The school Wellness department conducted a hands-on salad preparation demonstration with the students using lettuce and other veggies from our farm. The objective was to engage children in the process of learning the importance of eating healthy. On this occasion, students got the opportunity to prepare their own salads with fresh vegetables and fruits. They also learned that eating healthy and preparing their own meals can be fun!” Garcia enthusiastically shares. In addition to numerous science, health, math and economics lessons, the Idea School Farm produces peppers, tomatoes, herbs, carrots, and beans used in the cafeteria. The kids also help produce compost by collecting the “compostable” leftovers from lunch for use on the farm.
Garcia continues, “Our goal is to produce 100% of cafeteria program and provide with fresh vegetables. The most important thing is to create a culture and appetite to eat healthy, fresh food. We want to create awareness among students about the importance of eating healthy. The kids have a new level of connection when they plant the seed, harvest the fruit and eat it. We want this to be a way of living that they don’t even think about it. We want healthy minds, so we need healthy bodies. The kids go home and talk about it with their families. Some of them have invited their grandparents to be part of the farm since they had farmed in their youth. We would love to extend this to become a community garden.” All great ways to bring healthy eating back to our schools and community because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)
All photo credits Elizabeth Garcia unless otherwise noted.