Ask Jessica Shelly about why it is so important to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to elementary school students, and she might tell you a story about the candy Airheads.
Shelly, the food services director for Cincinnati Public Schools, guides the cafeteria offerings for more than 33,000 students each day. She also oversees the district’s implementation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that provides grant money for elementary schools to use to buy produce as snacks for students.
Cincinnati was among the first districts in the country to take part in the grant program, starting with two schools back in 2004. Now 30 schools are signed up, and Shelly says the positive impact on students has been remarkable.
Take one little boy, who came up to Shelly when students were eating raspberries as their snack.
“He was shocked the raspberries were red,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘What color did you think it was going to be?’ He said blue, because that’s the color it is in Airheads.”
FFVP isn’t just educating students about what actual fruit or vegetables look like. A new study from Bridging the Gap finds that schools that take part in the program also provide healthier food in school lunch, including more fresh fruits and vegetables.
That’s certainly the case in Cincinnati, which already has implemented nutrition requirements from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and offers salad bars at lunch. Shelly notes that the salad bar will offer new fruits and veggies after the produce already has been introduced at snack time.
The district is working with a local children’s hospital to study whether exposing kids to certain fruits and vegetables will make them more likely to eat them later in the year, Shelly says. She also notes that introducing fruits and vegetables via the program — which is targeted to support low-income students — helps boost kids’ psyche.
“One student said, ‘Thanks for the salad bar. I feel like I go to one of those fancy schools now,’” Shelly recalls. Providing fruits and vegetables “makes them feel special, makes them feel like they are not being excluded because of where they live or what their economic status is.”
Cincinnati isn’t the only place that has seen success with the program, either. District of Columbia Public Schools began taking part in FFVP in 2009, and is aiming to offer it at 80 sites for the upcoming school year.
“The kids are loving it, and they really are getting a lot of different variety of fruits and vegetables that they’ve never tried before,” says Diedre Bell, a senior program specialist who oversees the program for D.C. Public Schools.
Introducing students to exotic fruits and veggies can pique their interest, Bell adds, noting that at a staff member at one of her schools is of Indian heritage, so she has introduced her students to fruits and vegetables from India. The students loved it.
In Cincinnati, Shelly and her team almost always pick out fruits or veggies with a unique flair. If they are going to serve mushrooms, for example, they’ll serve shiitake mushrooms. In particular, students have gobbled up fruits such as mango, cherry tomatoes, blood oranges, avocadoes, sea beans and tri-color baby carrots.
Shelly admits there have been a few missteps. Students nearly universally rejected Duran fruit, for example. It looks pretty cool on the outside, but is kind of gross on the inside, she jokes.
“It’s mushy,” Shelly says. “The kids were just like, ‘What’s this?”
But overall, the district’s hard work appears to be paying off. Research shows that Cincinnati third graders have a lower body mass index (BMI) now than they did in Kindergarten, Shelly says.
“The earlier we get them, the earlier we expose them, the more we make it a habit of their day,” Shelly says of kids’ fruit and veggie consumption. “They’re used to it now. They expect it, and that’s what’s awesome.”
Click here to find out more about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
Don’t miss the rest of the Inside Track! Click here to learn how one PreventObesity.net Leader ditched the world of law to teach kids about healthy eating. Plus: Don’t miss the news about a big victory for student health in Seattle, and get the details on a webinar looking at advocacy opportunities following the Weight of the Nation documentary.