It turns out getting children to gobble down fistfuls of green beans isn’t that hard.
Every morning in Schenectady’s elementary schools, children carry trays of fruits or vegetables to their classrooms and devour whatever they’re given.
Just a year ago, many of them had never peeled a kiwi or eaten a star fruit, much less welcomed a vegetable. The first few times each item was introduced, it was generally greeted warily.
“The first time, we put it out just so they see it,” said Scott Stowell, general manager for Sodexo School Services, which runs the program. “A lot of children, their families would never be able to afford these products, to give a child a $2 piece of fruit.”
He believes children will eat better if they are exposed repeatedly to nutritious food. And sure enough, with no other options for snack — and with food sitting there free to anyone hungry enough to try it — the students began to eat it.
It’s part of the district’s effort to teach nutrition and fight childhood obesity. And while it is a departure from the traditional goals of formal education, it’s a serious matter. In Schenectady County, 14 percent of the children on WIC (Women, Infants and Children) are overweight by age 4, according to county statistics.
Medical experts say that nationally, one in seven poor children are obese before they reach adulthood.
The district has continued programs that many other schools offer to combat childhood obesity. Some classrooms tracked their nutrition and physical activity this spring, while others are building gardens to grow their own food.
But Stowell said he believes the new healthy snacks program has finally tipped the balance toward nutrition.
“We have kids eating baby carrots at breakfast,” he said. “Fresh fruit consumption has gone up quite a bit. The healthy snacks have driven it.”
There was a steep learning curve.
Green beans had an advantage at first — at least the children recognized the vegetable.
They were completely in the dark the first time the trays were filled with unpeeled kiwis.
“We get these furry kiwis and we had nothing to eat them with,” Central Park International Magnet School principal Tonya Federico said. “It was like a little experiment.”
She went from room to room to see how teachers dealt with the snack.
“One teacher cut them with a plastic knife. Another peeled them all. A third sent them home,” she said with a laugh.
At Elmer Elementary School, students attacked the kiwis with forks. But the kiwis proved to be more than a match for fragile plastic.
Now, many students rip into them with their thumbs and suck out the insides.
The healthy foods were introduced in five schools last year as a pilot program. Teachers found that if they left the tray in the classroom and allowed students to pick from it whenever they wanted, most children succumbed to temptation and tried the strange foods.
Organizers also balanced unusual fruits with popular items, including spears of pineapple. Pineapple chunks had always been a favorite in the cafeteria, Stowell said. That ensured that students ate at least some of the first offerings.
By the end of last year, students had become such willing eaters that the district expanded it to every elementary school, as well as the K-6 classrooms in the K-8 schools.
But the food budget remained about the same.
“We might be spending a little bit more,” Stowell said. “But you replace other things.”
Among the items cut from lunch are canned fruits. Sodexo is also switching out beef for turkey.
“We’ve tried barbecued turkey. They love barbecue sauce. We’re trying sloppy tom versus sloppy joes,” he said.
But sometimes the price is too high. Stowell cut back on tomatoes when the price skyrocketed this year, he said.
The real challenge is at the elementary school level, he added.
“The high school is very receptive to new items,” he said. “We’ve seen a huge movement toward salads. We keep making more and more. It’s tripled and quadrupled in the high school this year. We’ve seen our pizza consumption go down a bit.”
Students are eating turkey deli sandwiches instead.
Stowell considers it proof that the healthy food message is getting across.
“It’s a new trend,” he said. “They’re finding out these are healthy choices.”
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