Reading, Writing and Rutabagas

Como-Pickton students get free snacks courtesy of a tasty grant program

BY FAITH HUFFMAN,| News-Telegram News Editor

April 10, 2008 - It's not every school that encourages students to eat, much less furnish snacks for students and staff during tutorials and extracurricular activities and, in some instances, in the classroom.

But at Como-Pickton, that is the norm.

The school district is one of only 25 in the state to receive funding for just such a project. Of course, the items provided don't run to the usual vending machine fare such as chips and candy bars either.

Instead, the school uses the money provided by Texas Department of Agriculture to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables which are made available to all district students and teachers at no charge, courtesy of the agriculture grant.

Overall, that's more than 800 students and upwards of 130 on the staff at C-P who have the option of snacking on the healthy foods during the school year.

The goal of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is to create healthier school environments by providing better food choices, expand the variety of fruits and vegetables that children experience, increase the children's consumption of fruits and vegetables, and ultimately make a difference in children's diets to impact their present and future health, according to Como-Pickton Assistant Superintendent Lydia Walden.

This marks the second time Como-Pickton Consolidated Independent School District has been awarded an FFVP grant from the agriculture department. The first round of the grant was for 2006-2007 in the amount of $58,700. The district applied for the grant again recently and was awarded $37,991 to be used from March 1, 2008, through Sept. 30, 2009, to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables for snacks.

"The government cut some of the funding, so we didn't get as much the second go-round, but at least they continued the program," the assistant superintendent said.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program initially began as a pilot project authorized by Congress in 2002. Funds to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables were awarded to 207 pilot schools in four states and an Indian tribal organization for the 2002-2003 school year.

Based on the initial success, legislation expanded the FFVP in 2004, making it a permanent program under the National School Lunch Act.

Ultimately, the FFVP is one more effort established to help combat childhood obesity by teaching through example the practice of healthy eating habits, introducing school children to a variety of produce they otherwise might not have the inclination -- not to mention the opportunity -- to sample.

To be selected, a school has to agree to make fresh fruits and vegetables available to all enrolled children and let the children and parents know the produce will be offered free. The district must maintain documented support from the food service manager and top administrators at each campus and the district level, and agree to comply with state guidelines.

The participatings schools also have a high percentage of lower-income students -- in most schools selected, 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced price meals.

School districts must have outside support to participate in the program, as well. Another aspect of the program is outside support or collaboration with state, local or private partners that help acquire, handle, promote, distribute, or provide nutrition education or other similar activities that help fulfill the FFVP goals.

USDA also looks for diverse blends of schools for the program (ex. urban, rural, suburban, large and small); a variety of implementation strategies; and complementary nutrition education and promotion activities.

And the vast majority of the grant has to be used for the fresh food -- no more than 10 percent of the total grant award can go toward administrative costs.

And "fresh" is a vital word. The program will not allow schools to use the funding to purchase processed or preserved fruits and vegetables, such as canned, frozen or vacuum packed items. The money also cannot be used to buy dips for fruits, fruit leather, jellied fruit, trail mixes or fruit mixtures with candy, or things like fruit pizzas made with cookie dough crust and fruit tarts.

Instead, new and different types fruits and vegetables that students would not normally have access to -- such as kiwi, star fruit, pomegranate, rutabaga and kohlrabi -- are encouraged, as well as other fresh favorites. USDA does allow schools to serve low fat and low fat yogurt-based dips, but only in very limited amounts.

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