For Worcester Public Schools nutrition matters

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee

“The first and most respectable of the arts is agriculture.” -Rousseau

The Worcester Public Schools continue to achieve a balance between academics and wellness as we try to provide nutritious foods for our students. Recently Massachusetts celebrated “Massachusetts Harvest for Students Week.” Throughout the state local famers were delivering boxes and bags of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables destined for school cafeterias.

The kick off for the event was held right in Worcester at City View School. “Massachusetts Harvest for Student Week celebrated the wonderful connections that are being forged between school food services and farms all over the state,” said Kelly Erwin, Manager of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project. Worcester was chosen for the “kickoff” because it is a one of the leading schools in the state promoting health foods and as Ms. Erwin stated there is a School Food revolution taking place in Worcester. She went on to say that Worcester has emerged as a leader in the state. Ms. Erwin referred to Worcester Public School Nutrition Director, Donna Lombardi, as the rock star of nutrition for she has had Worcester well ahead of the curve on nutrition initiatives.

At the kick-off, Commissioner Scott Soares of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture confirmed, “At a time when childhood obesity is a major problem, it’s good to know that our farms are part of the solution. In the last year alone, the number of Massachusetts farms selling directly to schools jumped from 45 to 95.” He stated that the program is good for our farms, good for our health and good for our schools. It’s a win-win from the schools to the farm.

As always schools mirror society and when there is a problem the schools need to step in and tackle the problem. This is the case with our obesity rate in Worcester for with our high rate of obesity this program will help. Finding solutions to the problem needs to be started in schools for our schools need to be the leaders in teaching our students about the importance of good nutrition.

With studies indicating that students served fresh, locally grown items tend to eat significantly more fruits and vegetables, the farm to school connection is making a positive difference at a time of concern about childhood obesity, while simultaneously improving the local economy and opportunities for Massachusetts farms. Massachusetts Harvest for Students Week demonstrates the Commonwealth’s commitment to uniting consumers and growers in support of healthier foods for our children.

According to Nutrition Director Lombari, during the Massachusetts Harvest for Students week, and really the entire growing season, the Worcester Public Schools will be offering locally grown apples (at least 5 varieties and some from Clearview in Sterling) , coleslaw, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce (from Czajkowski in Hadley) and other products as they become available. 

Parents will be pleased to know that all schools in Worcester will be offered fresh fruits with a preference for “locally grown” and fresh vegetables to complement the lunch entrée at least two to four days per week depending on availability. Ms . Lombardi also confirmed “We have expanded the locally grown and fresh efforts to the schools with pre-plated meals that in the past had to rely upon more processed items such as juice and frozen vegetables to meet the pattern requirements.”

When asked about the funding for the program Ms. Lombari replied, “The funding is coming from already established United States Department of Agriculture school meal reimbursements. Worcester is choosing to use fresh food components as much as possible to meet the meal pattern requirements. The Massachusetts Farm to School program has been our key logistical partner, matching our needs with various suppliers such as large distributors, medium and small farms.”

 As reported in the Incity Times in July, Governor Patrick signed the Massachusetts School Nutrition Act. This removed barriers for schools to purchase direct from farms; this new law will support the Massachusetts agricultural economy and help create enhanced and steady revenue streams for the Massachusetts farmers. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will work with the Department of Public Health in several areas related to the provisions of the Act to improve school nutrition including establishing nutrition standards for foods sold outside of the school meal program and wellness advisory councils as well as address training resources for school nutrition professionals and school nurses.

The number of schools and school districts, public and private, in Massachusetts that preferentially purchase locally grown foods has grown from fewer than 20 to more than 250 since 2003. In the last school year 55 percent of the students enrolled in public schools were in a district that served local foods. Some schools have also begun to grow food in their own gardens, send students to visit farms, and integrate nutrition and agriculture into their curricula.

Worcester has also been awarded $299,000 grant from USDA to provide fresh fruit and vegetables daily to students beyond the school meal program. The following schools will be providing additional fresh produce to students throughout the school day: Belmont Community School, Burncoat Prep, Canterbury Street School, Chandler Elementary, City View, Columbus Park, Elm Park, Lincoln Street School, Union Hill and Woodland Academy. This week these schools were served Asian Pears from Natick as part of the grant.

While all of this is taking place the first Kindergarten initiative is being promoted for Worcester with 300 kindergartners in four elementary schools (Belmont Community, City View, Elm Park, and Woodland Academy) will piloting this initiative. The program will promote healthy communities by connecting young children and their families with local food, farms, and nutrition education. In the classroom, kindergarten teachers integrate nutrition concepts into their core curriculum, reinforced by healthy snacks made from goods grown by local farmers. The initiative also includes farm trips for students and their caregivers, local produce for the students’ families with recipes and nutrition information, cooking demonstrations, instructional materials, and gardening in the classroom. This is a wonderful age to teach students about the importance of eating healthy.

When I asked Ms. Lombardi about future plans, she stated, “Our work right now is to sustain the new fresh food initiatives and continue working with everyone to expand local food sources.”

Keep in mind that this process usually takes place in small school districts so what is taking place in the Worcester Public Schools is unusual. Congratulations to everyone who has made this work for it’s wonderful to see that good nutrition is a priority in our school system.

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