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Fruit, Veggie Program Wins Praise in Schools, Congress

June 01, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — An experimental program giving away fresh fruits and vegetables to students in select schools has been so successful that some lawmakers want to expand it nationwide.

"I'd like to see this in every school in America," said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee and its former chairman.

"It would be one of the best health-care things we could do in this country," he added.

Congress included $6 million in last year's farm bill to test the idea in 100 schools in four states -- Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois -- and seven schools on the Zuni Indian Reservation in New Mexico.

While it will take years to measure the long-term health benefits, a report last month by the Agriculture Department said students, parents and teachers at nearly every school embraced the program.

School administrators credited it with decreasing obesity and encouraging children to eat healthier foods. Teachers said students were more attentive in class. Some parents said their children were asking for more fruits and vegetables at home.

"It's just been a resounding success and just positive comments from everyone you talk to, even hearing from students themselves saying that 'I'm eating fresh fruit and vegetables and I didn't eat any before' or 'I'm trying new things I haven't tried before,' " said Julia Thorius, chief of the Iowa Bureau of Food and Nutrition.

Of the 105 schools that responded to the Agriculture Department's survey, 100 said they would continue the program if the federal government continues paying the $94 a year for each student served.

There were a few glitches. Some administrators complained about the rush to get it in place. Several teachers said serving the fruits and vegetables was a distraction from class time. Some students "used food as weapons," hurling grapes, kiwis and cherry tomatoes at one another, the report said.

But Lou Enote, who runs the program on the Zuni Reservation schools near the New Mexico-Arizona border, said the problems were easily solved and the health benefits have made the program worthwhile. That is especially true on the reservation, which has high rates of poverty, obesity and diabetes.

"They're not having so much of the junk food and the kids are telling us that they're not as hungry, and the parents are telling us the same thing," Enote said.

Students are trying fruits like mangoes, papayas, kumquats and star fruit that are scarce on the reservation, and going home and teaching their families about good nutrition, Enote added.

Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said he is most intrigued by the potential long-term health benefits of weaning students from fattening snacks such as chips, candy bars and soda.

"I think this is introducing a healthy option to schoolchildren," he said. "I think if we do take preventative measures in the health-care area and nutrition area we can really save ourselves a lot of dollars."

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