District using state grant to improve students' diet

(Originally published in the Telegraph on 7/28/08)

BETHALTO - The Bethalto School District will receive some green from the state to feed students at West Elementary more fresh fruit and vegetables.

The $5,422 grant from the Illinois State Board of Education - contributed as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program - is designed to "(provide) all students in participating schools access to a variety of free fresh fruits and vegetables during the school day ..... both inside and outside the cafeteria," an ISBE news release said.

The state will offer the program to 25 Illinois public schools during the 2008-2009 school year for a total of $250,000 in funding.

"I think it's going to be great, because we're going to have fruits and vegetables that the kids have probably never tried before," said Rexie Eaker, food service director for the Bethalto School District. "We'll bring in some kiwis, some papayas, and we might have snow peas - just things that a lot of families don't have."

Eaker, who applied for the grant on behalf of four schools in the district, already has drummed up ideas on how to make the program interactive for students by encouraging their creativity.

"We're going to take turns for each class to make a salad of the week, a special salad using fruits and vegetables, and we'll feature that one day a week," she said.

Teachers' health units will become a lot tastier, too.

"We're going to partner with the classroom teachers," Eaker said. "When they're talking about nutrition, we'll bring in different foods for kids to try."

Eaker hopes the program will help West Elementary's students lead healthier lives.

"I really don't think many school-aged kids eat enough fruit and vegetables," she said.

"At the high school and junior high, we have apples and oranges every day, and they are taking a lot more fresh fruit than they used to," but the elementary schools do not offer fresh fruit on a daily basis, Eaker said.

Representatives from the 25 Illinois schools will attend an ISBE meeting in Bloomington on Aug. 8, where they will learn more specific details about the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture established the program in 2002, expanding to include all states for the 2008-2009 school year, the news release said. More than 50 schools in Illinois applied. The state will reimburse the 25 schools on a monthly basis, and the fresh produce purchased under the program cannot replace fruits or vegetables already served in cafeterias.

More than half of all elementary students nationwide eat no fruit on any given day, and one-quarter of all vegetables eaten by elementary students are French fries, a study co-sponsored by the Produce for Better Health Foundation and national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends children eat at least 1.5 cups of fruits and 2.5 cups of vegetables every day.

For additional information about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, including nutritional tips and recipes for parents, visit USDA's My Pyramid at www.mypyramid.gov or Fruits and Vegetables - More Matters at www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org.