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Healthy snack program is bearing fruit

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Posted: Saturday, January 14, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Sat Jan 14, 2012.

Imagine the playground at your neighborhood elementary school. Picture each child leaving their classroom for a few moments of freedom at recess, with a snack in hand.

Now freeze. Take every Twinkie, bag of spicy Cheetos or fistful of candy and throw it out. Replace it with a shiny green apple, just small enough for a child's hand, or a bag of sliced sweet potatoes that look a little like carrot sticks. Now unfreeze, and watch those kids nosh on wholesome snacks without a thought.

That's the goal of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. It's run by the USDA, and it offers a grant to provide a basket of farm-fresh goodies to each classroom in nine Title I schools in Lodi Unified School District.

With more than 12 million American children between two and 19 years old considered obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008, it's no wonder that fresh local produce and snacks are in demand.

To help combat the problem, the USDA offered $158 million in grants this year to bring that produce to the classroom.

But when the program started in 2008, Heritage Elementary School participated in the national pilot, making it the first school in Lodi Unified to offer fresh produce as snacks.

Principal Maria Cervantes was eager to incorporate the program at her school. Like many educators and parents, she's concerned about instilling positive lifestyle choices early.

"Things will get worse if we do not take a serious focus on changing eating habits," she said.

There are a few purposes in mind. One is to introduce students to foods they might not see at home. Apples and bananas are run of the mill, but what about persimmons? Or jicama?

Another idea is to get it into kids' heads that veggies taste good. Eating raw broccoli or sliced sweet potatoes is delicious, once children are exposed to those foods on a regular basis. Offering an alternative to junk food snacks is often all it takes to change kids' minds.

The bounty doesn't come without a few regulations. Only Title I schools are eligible. The idea is that families who aren't able to pay for their child's school lunches probably aren't able to stock up on fresh veggies at home, either.

These particular foods cannot be paired with other foods. Even if produce for the cafeteria's garden bar comes from the same vendor, these portions have to be eaten as a snack.

By now, cafeteria manager Sharene Villanueva is a pro at ordering each round of produce and doling out one class' worth to small wicker baskets.

It does mean more work for her, but she doesn't mind.

"It's worth it to see them eating the fruit over chips," said Villanueva. "It's really nice to see them munch on a fresh apple or tangerine, something healthy. It's a catalyst to better habits."

Villanueva orders her produce each week from Food4Thought, a vendor based in Fresno that works with small, local farms. The food they sell to schools is too small for grocery store shelves, but perfect for little hands. Before it hits the school cafeteria, the food is already washed, prepped and doled into 2-ounce servings.

Most kids at Heritage have stopped bringing their own snacks. They know something good is waiting for them just before recess. Each class sends out two runners to pick up their basket.

On Friday, Erica Mendoza and Joanna Martinez were sent from their fifth-grade classroom.

At home, Mendoza likes to eat sliced and salted mangos. When she goes to the grocery store with her mom and brother, she asks for those tropical fruits and apples.

Martinez was quick to list the rules for eating fruits on the playground.

"You have to clean it up, not leave it on the ground," she said.

And teachers feel better knowing that even the students who missed breakfast have a healthy snack on the way.

It takes effort to bring these foods to kids and make them appealing. But the effort seems to be working.

Students with access to fruits and veggies through this program are eating about half a serving more of these nutrient-rich snacks each day, according to a study released by the USDA in September.

And Lodi Unified officials have noticed.

If the grant is available, Warren Sun, director of food services, hopes to expand the program to more schools.

Perhaps the best testament was the crowd of students around Vargas on Friday morning clamoring for seconds.

"I hope the program continues, because the kids really benefit," she said. "I'd much rather have them have fruit or something healthy."

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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