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Edible Schoolyard educates food council

February 18, 2011

Donna Cavato, the executive director of the Edible Schoolyard program of the Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans, told the Louisiana Sustainable Local Food Policy Council that one way to get children interested in eating vegetables is through a hands-on approach.
Green Charter School hosted the council as it toured the school’s cooking classroom and school garden in early February.
“Our program has three components,” Cavato said. “Our gardening program is where the kids literally dig into the soil and learn how to grow their own food.
Cavato explained that the school’s educational concept illustrates how children learn by doing and can develop an ability to make wise nutrition choices.
“When the children grow a carrot or Brussels sprouts and cook together in the kitchen, they’re eager to try it,” Cavato said. “We have a teaching kitchen where the kids learn how to prepare and enjoy the food they grow as a community at the table”
Cavato was quick to say the program does not automatically result in children who will clear their plate of all vegetables.
“Do all of our kids love vegetables? No, not yet, but they eat all of their fruit and most of their vegetables. It’s a process that you can’t lose sight of.”
Cavato said the Edible Schoolyard program is a component of the teaching philosophy of Firstline Schools, a charter school system that is managing the Green School, Arthur Ashe Charter School, John Dibert Community School and Langston Hughes Academy. Firstline will add a high school to their lineup next year.
Cavato said Green School was flooded by Hurricane Katrina but the Edible Schoolyard program helped bring the neighborhood back.
“The Samuel Green story is the story of rebuilding our school and community through food and the Edible Schoolyard,” Cavato said.
The food policy council met in New Orleans on Feb. 2 at the Tulane Tidewater Building and heard from four parish public school food service representatives and Bill Ludwig, the southwest regional director of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service in Dallas.
Natalie Jayroe of the New Orleans food bank system and David Coffman of Hunger Free Louisiana also spoke at the morning session.
The Louisiana Sustainable Local Food Policy Council is comprised of state agricultural and institutional food stakeholders and is studying ways a sustainable local food policy can be applied to school lunch systems, government assistance programs and Louisiana agriculture.
Ludwig’s goal for school lunch and breakfast programs is lofty.
“My objective is to end hunger in all five states of my region (Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico),” Ludwig said. “When I look at the numbers for Louisiana and see the poverty rate is 17.3 percent and the number of households that are food insecure at 10 percent and that 65 percent of all the schoolchildren in Louisiana are participating in the national school lunch program, I know there is a lot more we can do for these programs.”
Ludwig said less than 50 percent of the children that participate in the lunch program are participating in the breakfast program. He speculated that the busing system and parents have difficulty getting children to school early enough to participate in the breakfast program.
“Hungry children can’t learn and they have disciplinary problems,” Ludwig said. “If you want to do something, help us get those participation rates in the national breakfast program up.”
John Dupre from the Louisiana Department of Education told the panel his department oversees the 140 food service organizations in Louisiana that plan school lunches for public, diocesan and private schools and other institutional groups.
Within the 140 food service groups, more than 1,600 facilities plan and serve 100 million lunches and 40 million breakfasts on an annual basis.
That’s a lot of food and the suppliers must be consistent, reliable and affordable, Dupre said.
The USDA reimburses school systems but also sets the criteria for what constitutes a reimbursable meal. Last year, Louisiana received $250 million from the USDA for its school lunch and breakfast program.
“There are avenues for the Louisiana food grower and the parish food service director to bring in more local foods,” Dupre said. “But it takes planning and both groups need to be invested in the process.”
The council also heard from food service representatives from Ouachita, Lafayette, St. Martin and Jefferson Parish school systems.
Cecilia Enault of Jefferson Parish said her goal was to make the school lunch program better than the one she had as a child.
“Our school system, like many others in the state, is struggling to balance its budget,” Enault said. “We have served Louisiana Gulf shrimp in an okra and shrimp gumbo with Crowley rice and satsumas and strawberries and we prepare those types of familiar foods, but we don’t always have the opportunity to say where these foods are going to come from because of bid requirements.”
            Sylvia Dunn of St. Tammany Parish said her schools have achieved the USDA Gold Standard of Distinction.
“On our food bars we have fresh strawberries and watermelon,” Dunn said. “We’d like for those to be Louisiana strawberries and watermelons but we do get those items from California sometimes.”
Dunn also said the best way to teach students how to make wise choices when selecting their food is to offer fresh fruits when they begin kindergarten.
“The children who were eating fresh fruit when they were in kindergarten still want fresh fruit when they are in the ninth grade,” Dunn said.
Because there were so many diverse views presented on how to bring more local food into the school lunch system, State Representative Scott Simon, the chairman of the advisory group, called for the creation of a subcommittee to study the various practices employed by each program in the state.
Simon, of Abita Springs, established the Louisiana Sustainable Local Food Policy Council within the LDAF, during the 2009 legislative session.
Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain will review the findings and present its recommendations to the legislature sometime in 2012.
“The council is identifying opportunities to build a sustainable local food economy,” Strain said. "I believe that a strong local food economy will help stimulate job creation, economic development, preserve open spaces and increase consumer access to fresh, locally grown food.”
“One of the council’s goals is to create partnerships throughout the Louisiana food system and open doors for as many of our agricultural producers as possible,” Simon said.