New Haven Register
MIDDLETOWN, CT – Bright and chatty Macdonough Elementary School students filed into the cafeteria for lunch Wednesday to test a new menu item that overwhelmingly pleased their young palates.
Americorps FoodCorps Connecticut service member Paige Petit, who divides her time between Macdonough and Farm Hill elementary schools, led a black bean and corn salsa tasting, alongside U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, offering tiny cups of the colorful and mildly spicy sauce.
Students at the North End school are particularly adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, which happens courtesy of a federal grant that funds fresh produce the children enjoy for snacks, lunch and breakfast.
“We try to expose them to different things, like star fruit, avocado — not your typical apples and things like that. We’re trying to change their eating patterns. The hope is they’ll bring that home,” said Principal Damian Reardon as he circulated the room, gauging the students’ reactions.
Members of FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that works to connect schoolchildren to healthful foods, teaches kids about food and gardening to reinforce healthful eating habits.
The program launched in 2011, and has had programming in Connecticut since 2012. It wasn’t funded until 2018, at $1 million. This year, it received the same. Next year, DeLauro is hoping to see $5 million devoted to the initiative.
DeLauro is a senior Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds FoodCorps. In the 3rd Congressional District, the organization has four service members: two in New Haven Public Schools, and one each in Middletown and Naugatuck.
Connecticut is among 18 states to implement the program.
“We have to fight every year, which is almost unconscionable, for funding for AmeriCorps,” said DeLauro, who is encouraged by the opportunity for young people to grow up both knowledgeable and healthy. “We ought to take this nationwide. We are a land of abundance. We have youngsters who go to bed hungry at night, and they’re not always having a healthy and nutritious meal.”
In underserved communities across the country, AmeriCorps connect kids to healthful food in three ways: hands-on learning in the classroom and garden, healthful school meals (exposing to kids to new foods in the cafeteria, getting them excited to try new things, and steering them toward healthful options), and working with school staff and families to encourage a school-wide culture of health, said FoodCorps Connecticut Program Director Dawn Crayco.
“It’s great program. We place service members in schools that really value and celebrate healthy food. The service members have the capacity to make sure it’s pulled in throughout (the student body): from the classroom, to the cafeteria, to out-of-school events.
“They’re like healthy food ambassadors,” she said.
Petit visited each table with a chart, giving kids three choices: I tried it, I liked it, and I loved it, as DeLauro polled each on their reasons for picking a particular category.
“Kids they don’t have an agenda, they speak their mind. They’ll tell you they loved it, they liked it, or they didn’t like it. For me, it’s one of the best efforts I can make,” DeLauro said.
Children have also taken part in taste tests of homemade banana ice cream, kohlrabi, roasted broccoli. The results are recorded on the “veggie wall of fame.”
When children returned from spring break Monday, Macdonough began a free hot breakfast program. “We found they’re not getting as much as protein as they need” in a typical high-sugar high-carb breakfast, Reardon said. “It burns through their system very fast and they’re hungry all the time.”
Now, every day the students enjoy an egg-based breakfast: wraps, muffin sandwiches, breakfast pizzas with meat and cheese or hard-boiled eggs. The latter is “a hard sell,” Reardon acknowledged. He’s pleased at their endorsement.
Janet Calabro, Middletown Public Schools food service director, said then first lady Michelle Obama’s child nutrition program was reauthorized in 2012. Since then, school districts across the nation have revamped their menu, offering low-sodium, low-fat options, and increased portions and requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.
“There’s an array of fresh fruits and vegetables out every day, and it’s all geared around colors. There are vegetable subgroups now that we offer to make sure we get leafy greens in every week and legumes and red/orange vegetables,” Calabro said.
The effort has enjoyed resounding success. “We see students now actively asking for/taking multiple servings,” she said.
Everything is whole-grain, including bread, pasta, brown rice and breakfast cereal. Pizza is made with low-fat cheese and turkey pepperoni.
Petit is very impressed at students’ reactions. “They’re super willing to try new things. Every time I thank them for being brave and trying something new.”
Tasting the items with youth helps encourage them, Petit said.
“A lot of these things are scary to them, like black beans. I didn’t like black beans when I was younger. Putting them with corn and salsa is a better way for them to try it,” especially since they’re sharing the experience with peers.
“Farmer Paige does a great job of really incentivizing it, but she also reinforces this as she does her classroom lessons, and talks about the health benefits,” Reardon said.
“The racial and geographical disparities in health outcomes are stark,” according to FoodCorps Connecticut. Despite having one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, the state is home to more than 108,000 children living in poverty.
“The younger you can get them, the more adventurous they’re going to be — they’re not so set in their taste-bud ways,” Reardon said.