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Local food program promotes Tenn. farms, improved nutrition for students

By Rebecca D. Williams | knoxnews.com

Local food program promotes Tenn. farms, improved nutrition for students
Photo by Don Wood

Even though it takes extra time and effort, cafeteria workers in Hawkins County's public schools slice every apple into wedges before serving it. If they don't slice the apples, the kids won't eat them, according to Child Nutrition Director Alice Snodgrass.

"If I'm a high school student, I don't want to talk to my boyfriend while eating a whole apple," explains Snodgrass. "If I'm in middle school, I might have braces and can't bite an apple. If I'm in preschool or elementary school, I probably don't have teeth."

Even from an adult perspective, there's a benefit to slicing apples, Snodgrass says. "If I cut them into wedges, I don't have to have them uniform. And that means I can buy them locally."

Snodgrass buys apples from Johnson City, Tenn. Last year, she bought watermelon, strawberries and some potatoes from local farmers, too. But, she says, it's not easy to find local produce that's affordable and available in the quantities she needs for all 17 schools in Hawkins County.

"It's a lot more work to buy locally," says Snodgrass.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is working in conjunction with the Department of Education on a statewide initiative called "Local Foods for Local Schools," both to promote Tennessee farms, and to improve nutrition for children. The effort is part of a national farm-to-school movement (see www.farmtoschool.org).

Since July 1, 2008, Tennessee state law has required that the availability of local agriculture products, freshness and transportation costs be considered in the school food-bidding process. The law also now encourages nutrition supervisors to break up their bids into small parts to encourage local farmers who may not be able to supply an entire system's food needs.

Linda Shelton, a marketing specialist with the Tennessee State Department of Agriculture, says they are providing schools with the names of farmers who want to grow for schools. They plan to offer education to farmers on how to win bids, as well.

Knox County Schools purchases all fruits and vegetables from Son Shine Produce, a wholesale distributor, according to Russ Oaks, the system's chief of staff.

Son Shine Produce does try to buy some local produce, according to owner Len McMahan. This month McMahan has watermelons from Blount County and tomatoes from Cocke County. But since the Knox County school system is so large, McMahan says he can't find enough local produce to feed the entire school system and more often buys from California, Florida and overseas.

"Our number one goal is to deliver the product they need," says McMahan. "If I can get it locally it saves us on freight. Plus a home grown product is a better product."

Veggie tales of woe

Most children don't get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, experts say. In the last 20 years, obesity rates have doubled among children and tripled among adolescents, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 2008, 31.9 percent of American children and adolescents were overweight and 16.3 percent were obese.

That's what drives Snodgrass to hunt for locally grown vegetables, she says.

"We have a pretty high percentage of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes," says Snodgrass. "We are a pretty low-income county. I figure if they get one extra serving of vegetables a day, I've helped the child."

The Child Nutrition Act, which governs school lunch programs around the country is up for renewal before Congress in September. Some advocates hope congress will appropriate funds for farm-to-school programs, which it authorized in the last nutrition act but didn't fund. There are already more than 2,000 active programs in 40 states, according to the National Farm to School Network.

The only active farm-to-school program in East Tennessee is through the Clinch Appalachian Farmers Enterprise (CAFE), located in Sneedville. As a group of 28 growers in upper east Tennessee, they have supplied salad bar fare for schools in Hawkins, Hancock and Cocke Counties. They have also gone into schools for taste testing and educational programs.

Farmers bring their produce weekly to pack and deliver to schools. When the vegetables are finished for the season, they plan to sell locally grown, frozen diced potatoes, pre-cooked without oil and with the skins on for more nutrition. Long says she hopes schools will buy them as hashed browns for breakfasts.

"I try to keep looking at the big picture," says Lisa Long, CAFE chairperson and farm-to-school coordinator. "We want to promote farms and help farms stay in business. If the kids are educated and see where their vegetables are coming from, they'll have some involvement in it. They're more likely to eat it.

"It sometimes gets discouraging because we're not providing a lot of food," says Long. "We're small potatoes."

Rebecca D. Williams is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.

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