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Riverdale Elementary students get healthy snacks

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

One day this past fall, Riverdale Elementary School Fourth-grade Teacher Tiffany Storey had to eat her own words, along with a helping of Brussels sprouts.

The school has a mid-morning snack program, called the Rocket Express Snack Program, in which each of the school's 640 students receive a fruit or vegetable snack in an effort to promote healthier eating habits. Often, the snack of the day is a food some pupils have never tried before.

Even some faculty members, like Storey, end up trying some fruits and vegetables for the first time in their lives. In Storey's case, Brussels sprouts were the new thing.

"We had snap peas one day, and a lot of the students had never had them before, so I told them, 'You can't say you don't like it until you try it,'" Storey said. "Well, the next week, we have Brussels sprouts, and so my students were telling me, 'Remember Ms. Storey, you can't say you don't like it until you try it.' So, I tried it."

Riverdale Elementary School is the first school in the Clayton County school system to distribute healthy snacks to students and school employees through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, and one of only 55 schools in the state to do so, according to school system and Georgia Department of Education officials.

The program is designed to promote healthy eating habits among elementary school students, said Riverdale Elementary School Nutrition Manager Sue Coleman. "It helps them make healthier choices when they are choosing a snack," she said. "It shows them there is a nutritious snack option rather than eating junk food."

Every school day at 10 a.m., a representative from each classroom at the school goes to the school cafeteria to pick up a basket filled with a fruit or vegetable snack for the teacher and each student in the class. Even administrators and office staff, from Principal April Madden down, receive a fruit snack to eat.

Fruits, such as apples, grapes, bananas, tangerines and grapefruits, make up much of what is offered to students, but Coleman said vegetables, like sugar snap peas, carrots, asparagus, purple cabbage, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and Brussels sprouts, are also given to the youths. Every day offers a different snack, she said.

"It's exposing kids to fruits and vegetables they might not be exposed to normally," Coleman said. "It just encourages them to eat more fruits and vegetables."

Madden said the school sometimes includes in the baskets nutrition-related activities, such as work sheets and instructions for games, to further teach students about healthy eating habits. The principal said even she has learned to make healthier food decisions for herself and her 5-year old son. "It's made me more conscious about what I'm buying for myself, and my child," she said.

The principal also said there are educational benefits to providing the snacks to the students in the middle of the morning. "They [the students] do get hungry between lunch and breakfast, and we don't want to have empty stomachs," Madden said. "If they're hungry, then they are more likely to be tired and lethargic, and not focused on their school work."

According to Coleman, the school was notified by school system Assistant Coordinator of School Nutrition Lisa Singley last spring that the district had received approval from the Georgia Department of Education to participate in the snack program.

Singley, who oversees the school system's participation in the program, said the program is funded with $32,000 that comes from a grant from the USDA. The program is administered on the state level by the Georgia Department of Education, she said.

The state is receiving $1.8 million this year from the USDA for the program, and that is expected to increase by 50 percent during the 2010-2011 school year, according to Lana Freeland, Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Grant administrator for the state Department of Education.

Freeland said that up to 75 more Georgia schools could be added next year. During the 2008-2009 school year, only 25 Georgia schools participated in the program, she said. This is the second year the Georgia Department of Education has participated in the program, she said.

According to an information form sent out by the Georgia Department of Education's School Nutrition Program to local school systems, the criteria for a school to be selected for the program include: being an elementary school; operating the National School Lunch program; submitting a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program application; having at least 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches; having a high percentage of low-income students, and having a plan to integrate the program with other efforts to promote health and nutrition.

"We applied for Riverdale Elementary to participate in the program because of the number of students there who qualify for free and reduced lunch status," Singley said. "It's got a very high amount of students (94.9 percent of the student body) who receive free, or reduced lunches."

Singley added that the district is interested in getting more elementary schools in the county to participate in the program next year. "It's been very successful so far," she said. "I've heard wonderful feedback about the program. The kids just look forward to getting their snacks every day."

Coleman said the benefits of participating in the program this year can be seen in the choices students are making in lunch lines at the school. "They are more apt to trying something new that they haven't tried before," she said. "I can see where they are picking up more of the fruits and vegetables at lunch."

As they munched on apple slices while working on fractions in math class Thursday morning, several students in Storey's class said they give the snack program their seal of approval.

"They're tasty, and it encourages me to eat more fruits," said fourth-grader, Courtney Hubbert, 9.

"It helps by keeping me healthy," added classmate, 9-year-old Kartez Glass.