Pilot program will offer free fruits, veggies to students

Monday, July 1, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Free fruits and vegetables or junk food: The government hopes public school students will go with the healthier option in a trial program that promotes good nutrition and offers farmers a chance to earn some extra money.

This fall, 100 schools in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa will receive $6 million to offer students free produce. The one-year program, which also will serve students at schools on one Indian reservation, is part of the farm bill President Bush recently signed. The participating schools have not been picked.

About 13 percent of all children are obese, and nutritionists say youngsters who get in the habit of eating fresh produce usually continue to do so throughout their lives.

Saving money on food also appeals to Nichelle Donnenwirth of Bucyrus, Ohio.

"You have to pay for the other stuff, so if you get the fruit and veggies for free, the kids at our school, they're going to eat it," said the 17-year-old, who will be a senior in the fall.

The Agriculture Department, which subsidizes school lunch and breakfast programs, already has trimmed the amount of fat, cholesterol and sodium in the meals it provides. Schools, too, have started including a range of popular fresh produce with the lunches.

But Barry Sakin of the American School Food Service Association, which represents school nutritionists, said most youngsters still are not eating the department's recommended five to nine fruits and vegetables a day.

"Kids tend to be very price sensitive, so this program breaks new ground," Sakin said. "We'll be very interested in seeing whether if you give a child the option to have fruits and vegetables throughout the day instead of junk food, will they take that apple or banana instead?"

Ginny Brechak, food service director for schools in Centerville, Ohio, said she believes students will embrace the new program.

"If we can have the fruits out there and have them fresh, where they are more appetizing, the students will take them," she said.

'Have to market it'

Patrice Murdock, student nutrition director for schools in Brighton, Mich., said it is important to make the produce appealing.

"You have to market it, just like McDonald's and Burger King does," she said. "Maybe we can give them a dip along with the carrots and celery sticks, or make a trail mix with cherries and nuts."

The program does not dictate how the food will be distributed to the students. The produce could come from supermarkets or local growers, giving them a chance to earn extra cash for excess produce.

"We specifically wanted to make it loose like that to encourage experimentation," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Harkin said he would like to make the program permanent and extended to all schools when the school lunch program is reauthorized in 2003.

"It gets kids the fruits and vegetables they need, it cuts down on the amount of junk food they buy and it will also help reduce incidents of child obesity," said Harkin, a longtime opponent of vending machines at schools.

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