- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

In this age of soaring childhood obesity rates and eating bad food on the run, there is often a disconnect between food origins and the food on our plates.

That’s why Maryland created the Jane Lawton Farm-to-School Program. The initiative, named for the late state delegate, encourages using Maryland-grown products in public schools. The program also will help educate children about the origins of their food and how to incorporate healthy eating into their diets.

The effort officially kicked off with Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week earlier this week, featuring tastings at schools across the state. The main celebration was at Takoma Park Middle School in Silver Spring, where VIPs who helped institute the program spoke and students in Barbara Brooner’s family and consumer science class took part in hands-on activities such as “milking” a replica cow and learning where farmers markets are located.

“One of my own children used to think that food grew at the supermarket,” said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park and co-sponsor of the bill. “What we are doing is creating alliances between farms and schools. We have got to be health-conscious.”

Using local products makes economic and environmental sense as well. With shorter distances to travel from farm to table, fuel costs and carbon emissions can be reduced. Supporting local growers also will strengthen the local economy.

“This can help our farmers and also help us,” Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, a Democrat, said at the Takoma Park event. “This program will provide income and stability for our farmers.”

Mr. Raskin points out that there are 12,000 farms and 1,300 schools in Maryland. With nearly 10 farms for every school, one might think the menu would have plenty of Maryland corn, watermelon, zucchini and tomatoes.

However, as with most programs, some of the details need to be worked out. The schools must still purchase most of their food through suppliers and not the farmers directly. Plans are in the works, though, to have more suppliers purchase local products, said Earl Hance, Maryland’s deputy secretary of agriculture.

Ms. Brooner, the family and consumer science teacher, said many of her students are socialized to think they do not like vegetables. However, when they make them in class — broccoli-topped baked potatoes and veggie stir-fries are favorites - the students “love them.”

A recent University of Maryland study suggests that children will eat fruits and vegetables at school with a little encouragement. Researchers found that teacher training with a tested curriculum used at parent events, teachers using the curriculum without such events and a Cooperative Extension educator teaching in classrooms all produced similar results. Repeated exposure to fruits and vegetables through taste-testing makes a difference, the researchers said.

For many families, school might be the best place for children to get their daily servings of vegetables.

“Fruits and vegetables are a key contributor to children’s health,” said Bonnie Braun, associate professor in the department of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“Unfortunately, national reports indicate that children’s consumption of these foods normally decreases from kindergarten to fifth grade,” she said. “Students from low-income families are particularly at risk of inadequate intake. Many of these children are dependent on food served by the school for one-third to two-thirds of their daily food intake. However, even if schools increase fruits and vegetables on their cafeteria lines, children must be willing to eat them.”

Before taking part in the study, 93 percent of students were not eating the recommended five fruits and vegetables a day, 70 percent ate fewer than three servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and of those, more than half ate fewer than two servings.

After taste-testing for the study, 60 percent of the students increased their taste for fruits and vegetables, and half either maintained their higher-than-average intake or increased intake.

At the kickoff event this week, the eighth-graders and their VIP guests feasted on veggie pizza, cucumber salad, green beans, apples and zucchini bread - all featuring Maryland-grown produce.

Student Caira Carranza said she likes the hamburgers at school, but thought she might buy more fruits and vegetables.

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