By Correne Martin
School lunches and snacks have come a long way from the days of canned peaches and frozen peas. Today’s students are getting a tasty, nutritious and colorful selection of fresh and even locally grown fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. As the youth gain a greater knowledge about what foods like cucumbers, kale and dragonfruit are, it’s important for parents and community members to become educated as well.
The Prairie du Chien School District participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), which is an application-based program that distributes grant money to schools so that fresh produce can be served at lunch time five days per week as well as during morning and afternoon breaks three days per week for younger children.
“The goal is that the sooner we get these kids introduced to these healthy foods, they’ll be more apt to choose them when they get to high school,” said Donna Heilmann, Prairie du Chien’s food service director. “We want parents to know that we are doing our very best to get as many fruits and vegetables as we can in their kids’ bellies.”
In addition to introducing school children to a variety of produce they might not otherwise have the chance to sample, the FFVP’s greater goal is to combat childhood obesity by helping children learn more healthful eating habits.
Through the FFVP, the PdC School District received $24,000 last year to cover the cost of providing the fruits and vegetables to students at the high school, Bluff View and B.A. Kennedy. The district applies for the grant yearly and funds are distributed on a per-child basis. The monies help cover food costs as well as supplies, such as napkins, cups, etc. Prairie du Chien has been participating in the program for about five years now, since the pilot year.
“The rules are very strict. We cannot use canned or frozen and it can’t be in cups or otherwise manufactured,” Heilmann explained. “We open no cans at all during summer school; I go to farmers markets for the produce. During the year, we do our best to get a fresh variety for our menu through our distributor. Last year, Sharing Spaces Kitchen processed a potato blend for us that included potatoes and squash. I’d much rather serve that than a tater tot or a potato wedge.
“B.A. Kennedy students are served whatever is menued, but the salad bar the kids at Bluff View and the high school have is really awesome. ”
On that salad bar, or veggie bar as it’s called at Bluff View, the food service staff chops up crisp lettuce salad daily, which includes a mix of romaine, spinach and kale as well as red cabbage for brightness and shredded carrots for crunch. In addition, the students are offered vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, kohlrabies, peppers, sweet peas and any others in season. Fruits might include apples, oranges, peaches, pears, strawberries, pineapple, and hopefully soon, dragonfruit and other types of exotic fruit. At the high school, items like tuna salad, cottage cheese and yogurt are added regularly, while they are given more sparingly at the other grade levels.
“I know parents don’t usually know what’s offered, so they might send a bagged lunch to school with their child,” Heilmann said, “but what they need to know is that we’re serving their kids really good food that isn’t processed.”
In addition to the daily salad bar offering, lunch takers can also eat the traditional buffet-style meal. Fruits and vegetables are an option on the buffet and students are expected to take a half-cup of one or the other at each meal.
“That does mean there is some waste, but not a lot,” Heilmann said of the requirement. “If I do see waste, it’s usually a vegetable, and every year, what the kids like and what they don’t like is different.”
Carrots and “Packer beans” (green and yellow wax beans) are among the kids’ favorite vegetables, according to Heilmann, who said, this school year, the district went through 150 pounds of carrots in the first week. As for the produce that is unpopular, cafeteria staff and teachers always encourage the students to take a “polite bite,” or at least try it.
“It takes someone at least six to 12 times of trying something in order for them to know if they really like it,” she noted. “The teachers are always encouraged to eat along with their kids, so if the students see them eating their veggies, that helps too. The teachers and administration have been very supportive of the program.”
Furthermore, the AmeriCorps Farm to School Program has contributed to the FFVP’s success as well by sponsoring local farmers who visit the schools to present their products and talk about them.
“Just like us, Farm to School is trying to make people more aware of the benefits of fresh, local food,” Heilmann added. “It gives our students a chance to see what vegetables look like right out of the garden and experience going to a farm. Whatever we can do to bring kids closer to their food is important.”
Sharing your bounty
Did you have a bountiful garden this summer? Would you like to share some of your produce with the local school district? If so, call Donna Heilmann at 326-3760, ext. 3210, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, tell her what you want to give and she can let you know if it’s something the district can use.
According to Heilmann, the Prairie du Chien School District welcomes donations of fresh, locally-produced fruits and vegetables to be used for school lunch and snacks. They must be in their original state from the garden and not processed in any way.
Heilmann said she knows there are community members and farmers marketers who have an overabundance of produce from their gardens. Rather than throw the excess away when it spoils, citizens are encouraged to contact her and consider donating it to the school.
“I know the growing season is about over, but I announced on Facebook recently that I would take people’s extra produce, and I had quite a few people interested, so I thought I’d let the community know,” she said. “I had one person already give me a flat of cucumbers. Whatever people have, they can call me and I’ll be honest with them about whether we can use it or not.”
Heilmann said she’d rather see the produce put to good use rather than be thrown away. She also noted that other school districts might accept donations if PdC isn’t able to use certain foods.