- Associated Press - Friday, March 14, 2014

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. (AP) - Marcy McCue’s first-graders were handed a small plastic bag with a piece of juicy, exotic fruit inside.

This particular morning it was star fruit, native to Asia, that slices into pale green, five-pointed stars. Each child got a star.

“Why do you think they might call it star fruit?” McCue asked.

They guessed right away.

“Is it sour?” one asked.

“You have to taste it,” McCue said.

“It’s good,” said Conrad Salcedo, 6. “It’s sour like an apple.”

“It tastes good,” Cierah Mendez, 6, said.

“I throwed it away,” said Ezekel Hill, 6. “It’s nasty!”

Ethan Perez, 6, said, “It looks like SpongeBob, if you bite the arms off.”

Children at Palo Verde and Saguaro elementary schools can sample a different kind of fresh fruit or vegetable every school-day morning because of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The children are familiar with some of the fruits and vegetables, like apples, oranges and cherry tomatoes. But others are exotic, like dragon fruit, edible flowers, mandarinquats and pluots.

McCue said she tells the children they don’t have to eat everything, but they have to try everything, “just a bite to see if they like it.” The day the edible orchids arrived, they insisted that she try it before they did.

The morning before the star fruit visit, cook and driver David Hale washed and chopped dozens of whole star fruits into individual servings at the Cottonwood Elementary School kitchen.

Kitchen Manager Pam Adams and Food Supervisor Stella Gates helped Hale bag and tie the individual servings for 950 students, count them into a bag for each classroom and place them in crates in the refrigerator. Hale dropped the crates off at the two schools the next morning.

It takes five or six hours every day to prepare and bag the fresh fruit or vegetable snacks for the next day, Adams said.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it ‘cause the kids get a snack every day, and they get introduced to new vegetables and fruits.”

“I think it’s a fabulous program,” Palo Verde Principal Daniel Garcia said. “The students get to experience fruits and vegetables that they wouldn’t otherwise experience, and some of these kids haven’t had very many experiences.”

He said it also shows kids that the school thinks their nutrition and health is important, and it encourages them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

“It’s such a great, great program,” Saguaro Principal Celie Downey-Foye said. “The students love it. The teachers love it.”

It provides a healthy mid-morning snack and exposes children to things they might otherwise never eat at home or school.

Casa Grande Elementary School District Food Services Director Germaine Davenport said, “The assumption is that the more exposure the kids get to these fresh fruits and vegetables, the more it might increase consumption.”

Davenport said she first applied for a USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant in 2009 and was turned down. The grants are for elementary schools with the highest free- and reduced-price lunch enrollment.

She applied again and again and finally won a grant for Palo Verde in 2013. This year, she applied for five schools and received grants for Palo Verde and Saguaro. Only 117 schools are on the program in Arizona this year.

“My hope is that next year, I have all nine elementary schools interested, so I’ll put in an application for each one,” Davenport said.

The Arizona Department of Education decides which schools receive the federal grant to pay for the produce. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is separate from the National School Lunch Program.

“Every year they get more and more funding,” Davenport said, “so more schools can get grants.”

When the teachers were surveyed, most thought it was great, she said. One wrote: “My class loves getting the snacks every day. We’ve incorporated the snack into content areas: math, science, language and writing.”

A few saw it as an inconvenience because it takes 10 to 15 minutes of classroom time. Some were bothered by the waste when the kids didn’t like something. One wrote: “Kids are hungry and need a snack, and it doesn’t have to be something strange and new.”

Davenport said national statistics say 25 percent of all school children do not eat breakfast and are hungry before lunch time.

“During testing week, we do breakfast in the classroom,” she said, “and we get a high percentage of kids who are eating because it is a social event.”

Teachers noticed that during that week, fewer kids were hungry before lunch. They focused better, had fewer discipline problems and needed fewer trips to the school nurse. A lot of issues were eliminated when kids ate breakfast.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program helps, Davenport added.

“If they’re getting something in their belly, it’s tiding them over.”

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