Currently underway is a new farm to school initiative that aims to help children at three different school districts gain access to healthy and local fruits and vegetables.
Schools in Oakland, Winters and Redding will receive funding from the Agricultural Sustainability Initiative (ASI) at UC Davis to educate their students and provide healthier lunches.
“Farm to school programs can have many impacts,” said Carol Hillhouse, children’s garden program director at ASI and co-director of the project. “We can improve the eating habits of many children, connect communities to region farmers and also improve local economies through supporting regional farmers.”
The ASI project received a grant of $497,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to Collin Bishop, communications and outreach fellow for ASI, the money for the project will come solely from the grant, and will pay for salaries, travel and some of the food itself.
The schools will allocate the money as they see fit – some spending the funding on various healthy foods, while others focusing more on integrating local farmers or educating students on important agricultural points of interest.
“The ASI is acting as a facilitator in the project,” Hillhouse said. “We’re trying to bring expertise along with our resources guiding what they have already started.”
Oakland, Winters and Redding are geographically and agriculturally different, which is one of the reasons why the team chose them to participate in the initiative.
“What we were really interested in was looking how these programs could play out in different regions,” Hillhouse said. “Oakland is urban, Winters is rural and Redding is in between. Certainly we wanted to impact schools that need to help, but in California that is pretty much everyone.”
Each participating school district reports that over 60 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Dr. Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and co-director for the UC Davis Center of Nutrition in Schools, believes the program will be able to shed light on how to eat healthy and cheaply in lower-income areas.
“We’re actually going in and studying what they are eating and what the kids like,” Zidengber-Cherr said. “We aren’t going in to force-feed anyone; instead just show kids that healthy food can taste good. We want them to be able to go home and ask their parents to cook healthy foods and incorporate fruits and veggies.”
Zindenberg-Cherr also stressed the importance of educating the parents in the communities.
“We’ll definitely be sending home information on how to make and prepare food that doesn’t cost much,” she said. “Often fatty foods are offered for cheaper prices, but we’re trying to show that you can get healthy food on a low budget, and that they actually taste good so the kids actually like them and want to eat them.”
The project also doubles as a study. Over the next year, the UC Davis team will literally be taking measurements at the lunch line, scanning what the children are offered, what they are choosing, what they are eating and what they are giving away to their friends.
“We see this as a sort of pilot to see how we can impact student and parent behaviors and to help schools and communities realize the need to serve fruits and vegetables,” Zindenberg-Cherr said. “If we gather strong data, we hope the initiative can be used as a model for future projects.”
ANDY VERDEROSA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.