This was the kind of lesson Hollie Ayers’ students could sink their teeth into.
Equipped with plastic forks, napkins and history and health facts, the third graders added to LCPS’s curriculum Monday by polishing off a bin of strawberries.
It was the first day of a new program that uses a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to provide fresh fruit and raw vegetable snacks to all K-5 students at Moss Hill, where Ayers teaches, and Pink Hill elementary schools – about 900 students – three days a week.
The aim is to expand the youngsters’ knowledge of foods and, through that exposure, to encourage healthier eating habits.
“The students are being exposed to different foods. The hope is they will try these fruits and vegetables and, after two or three times on the menu, they can decide if they like it,” Danelle Smith, LCPS’s child nutrition director, said. “If they do try salad, for instance – we’ll have salad in a cup – when they go to a grocery store with mom and dad we hope they’ll say they like salad or they like carrots or that they know what broccoli is and that they like it.”
This first week, Smith and her cafeteria staffs are sticking with tried-and-true favorites. Monday’s strawberries will be followed by cucumbers (with ranch dressing) on Wednesday and apple slices on Friday. The menu will also dip into the exotic with delicacies like dragonfruit, the fruit of several cactus species indigenous to the Americas with a leathery, leafy skin that covers a sweetish white flesh similar to a kiwi in texture.
“The cafeteria staff is really excited,” Smith said. “They can’t wait to see how these kids are going to do with these snacks. Some of the kids don’t bring a snack to school, so this is going to be a great snack for them anyway.”
The grant allocates LCPS about $50 per pupil, or about $53,000 total, that Smith thinks will take the program through May with careful selection of menu items, purchased through the Raleigh produce company that won the bid. Some items come prepackaged, but others – like the strawberries the cafeteria staff put into individual serving containers Monday or the watermelons and cantaloupes they’ll cut into bite-size pieces next spring – require more preparation.
Such logistical issues are a primary reason LCPS started small with the program. “We hope to expand it, but right now we’re learning the program,” Smith said. “That’s why we chose two schools that are close together. We’ll be able to monitor them and see how the program’s going and how it’s fitting in with instructional time.”
Elementary schools are the best place to start because “we want to catch them when they are young so we can educate them more and help them so that when they do get to middle and high school they’ll make those healthy choices to take those fruits and vegetables,” she said. “We hope to help them make really good, healthy choices, whether they’re out in society, in the cafeteria or in their home.”
Principal Stacy Cauley is glad Moss Hill Elementary was picked for the program, which she sees as another learning opportunity for her students. “It is rewarding to know that students will get exposure to these different types of food that they otherwise may not have ever had,” she said.
The snacks are served in addition to the fruits and vegetables on the regular cafeteria menu and must be served either after breakfast or after lunch.
Ayers picked up her class’s bin of strawberries, packaged in individual containers, along with the napkins and forks a little after 9:30 a.m. and, back in the classroom, as preparation for actually eating the strawberries, led the class through a brief Q&A about the fruit.
Place of origin? (Europe) Time? (18th century). “It’s a hybrid of two wild species from North America and Chile,” Ayers said. “Do you know where Chile is?”
“South America,” several students responded.
“Strawberries are rich in vitamins,” the teacher said, “ including Vitamin C and … Who wants to give that big word a try?” “Manganese,” one student ventured.
With the technical items behind them, the students decided the things that really made strawberries special are their sweet taste and their sweet smell. “Open your strawberries,” Ayers said. “Don’t eat them yet, just smell them.”
Almost as one, the students took a deep breath and exhaled their satisfaction, a long, appreciative “aaahh.”