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The month of October is designated by Congress as “National Farm to School Month”! Throughout the month, school systems across the country will celebrate their efforts to connect with local famers and provide students opportunities to enjoy local produce while learning about the benefits of nutritious fruits and vegetables. The Newton County School System (NCSS) will be among the systems recognizing local produce served in the cafeteria. In fact, the NCSS School Nutrition Department plans to continue highlighting locally grown items beyond “National Farm to School Month” by featuring one “Georgia grown” or “locally grown” item each month on the breakfast or lunch menu.

In the coming months, NCSS students can expect to be offered local favorites such as sweet potatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, peaches, and cabbage. According to the School Nutrition Coordinator, Donna Vella, produce grown in Georgia and the surrounding states has been offered to students as a part of school meals, but until now, items have not been identified and recognized as such.  While there is no universal definition for a “local food”, the NCSS Nutrition Department is choosing to recognize a food as “locally grown” if it originates from the surrounding southeastern states including South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. Offering local, seasonal produce is an economical way to provide an increased variety of fruit and vegetable options, as required by the new Federal nutrition guidelines for school lunch programs, The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, 2010.

                An increased focus on establishing “farm-to-school” partnerships that provide students access to locally grown foods is one of several strategies outlined in the Federal legislation to improve the nutritional status of school aged children and decrease the rates of childhood obesity. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA) has created the “Know You Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative which aims to encourage the consumption of local food as a way to promote local economic growth and healthy eating habits. Eating local food provides environmental advantages by decreasing the time of food transport; therefore, lessening fuel cost and the environmental burden of food transportation. In addition, because of decreased time between harvesting and consuming, fruits and vegetables are likely to be more flavorful.

The NCSS School Nutrition Department hopes that featuring locally grown produce each month will encourage students to try nutritious fruits and vegetables that they may be otherwise reluctant to choose. According to www.nationalfarmtoschoolmonth.org, offering local produce on the menu is an excellent way to encourage students to participate in the school lunch program and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. In fact, a review of preliminary studies on the impact of “farm-to-school” programs found increased fruit and vegetable consumption among students in 10 of the 11 studies which measured this outcome; students were offered local foods on a salad bar, offered local foods without a salad bar, or engaged in education regarding local foods. In addition, for studies which included a “farm-to-school” education component, the majority found that students increased their knowledge of the process of growing food.

 

Encouraging all Americans to increase their consumption of fruit and vegetables is a primary nutrition strategy of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a set of recommendations written and regularly updated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to the Guidelines, fruits and vegetables provide many important nutrients including vitamins A, C, K, and folate; minerals such as potassium and magnesium; and dietary fiber. In addition, fruits and vegetables, which are naturally lower in fat and calories than many other food choices, have long-term health promoting benefits such as reducing the risk of certain chronic diseases and cancer.  However, the Guidelines also note that the majority of Americans, ages 2 years and older, fail to consume the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

The USDA provides general recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake which vary according to gender and age as indicated below.

 

Servings of Vegetables

Servings of Fruits

Children, 4-8 years

1 ½  cups

1 – 1 ½ cups

Girls, 9-13 years

2 cups

1 ½ cups

Boys, 9-13 years

2 ½ cups

1 ½ cups

Girls, 14-18 years

2 ½ cups

1 ½ cups

Boys, 14-18 years

3 cups

2 cups

*Table adapted from the United States Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate.gov. How Many Vegetables are Needed Daily or Weekly and How Much Fruit is Needed Daily. Recommendations are for the general population, and therefore, could vary for specific individuals.

                For more information about what counts as a cup of fruits or vegetables, visit the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov website at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/.

The NCSS School Nutrition Department hopes that featuring local produce will not only allow students the opportunity to try and enjoy a variety of healthful produce at school, but will also spark a conversation at home and encourage healthy habits outside of the school day. To find out more about seasonal produce grown in Georgia, locate local farmer’s markets, or find recipes using local ingredients, visit the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association website at http://gfvga.org/. To find out more about the nutritional benefits of specific fruits and vegetables, plus how to purchase and store them for best keeping, visit Fruits and Veggies More Matters at http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/vegetable-nutrition-database.