ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — Students at North Bayou Rapides Elementary School have been trying new things this semester — things like Louisiana sweet potatoes, strawberries and squash.
The school in a rural area of Alexandria is participating in the state's Harvest of the Month program, which helps get fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables into schools. It is one of three schools — and the only one from Central Louisiana — to be selected for the LSU AgCenter's pilot program.
Fresh-from-the-farm, specialty-crop fruits and vegetables are delivered to the school one day each month. On May 13, students had sliced cucumbers and squash with ranch dressing for dipping to go with their school lunch. It was many of the students' first time to try the vegetables.
Pre-K student Uryia Davis, 5, liked his cucumbers and squash, just like the broccoli he tried last month. But he had to chew the raw veggies on the side of mouth.
"My tooth is loose," he said, pointing to one at the front of his mouth. "I can't bite."
Third-grader Ava Andries and sixth-grader Andrew Johnson didn't care for the squash. But they received "I tried it" stickers for giving it a shot. Even though they aren't fans of that particular vegetable, they do support Harvest of the Month.
"It's a good program," said Andrew, who likes "all kinds" of fruit. "It's showing you how to eat healthy."
"I like it because it helps us try new things," said Ava, who enjoyed sweet potatoes and strawberries that the LSU AgCenter provided earlier in the year.
That's the goal of the program, which was developed last fall and implemented in January by the LSU AgCenter with the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance and other community partners.
Program Director Ann Savage said research has shown that the younger children try new foods, the more likely they are to like them.
"Fresher produce is more nutritious," Savage said. "It's nice to get things that are not frozen or canned in our cafeterias."
She said the program adds to the efforts North Bayou Rapides' cafeteria already makes to include fruits and vegetables in student lunches.
Harvest of the Month is funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Grant Fund coordinated by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Due to the work of the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative, the LSU AgCenter reached out to CLEDA to implement an application process to identify the participating school from the region.
Physical education teacher Jennifer Bowie completed the grant application for North Bayou Rapides. Savage said the school was a good fit for the program. More than 90 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"A lot of the kids here don't get fresh fruits and vegetables at home," Bowie said. "For some it's the only meal they get. It gives them a healthy alternative."
The purpose of the project is to increase access to local produce in schools, encourage students to make healthy food choices, provide information so that students better understand where food comes from and support the community and farmers through increased purchases of local food, according to program officials.
"It's an opportunity for our farmers in the region to sell more product to the schools," said John Dean, director of regional innovation for CLEDA. "It's a great opportunity for our students and schools but great for our farmers, too."
The goal of the pilot program is to create a model that can be expanded for statewide use. The program currently affects nearly 2,000 students and their families.
"Our goal is for all schools to be including local food, and our producers are scaling up to provide that," Dean said.
In addition to a new fruit or vegetable each month, Harvest of the Month schools get promotional and educational materials for classrooms, libraries and cafeterias.
May 13 was the last delivery of the school year, but the program will continue next semester. Uryia is looking forward to trying more new foods and recommends they deliver carrots soon.
"I never tasted carrots," he said.
Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, http://www.thetowntalk.com
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