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Dept of Ag managing new duties as head of school lunch programs

In the past, public school lunchrooms haven’t always been known for serving tasty food that’s also healthy food.  But Tom Flanigan reports there’s a major move in Florida to serve students good-tasting meals that are also good for them.

Springwood Elementary School looks a little bit like a set from the Food Network.  Various yummy menu ingredients are stacked on a table.  Some students are talking about their most and least favorite foods.

But the kids aren’t just talking about food.  They’re also learning about food.  Such as what kinds of food are the best for you and even how to prepare simple, healthy snacks.  This comes courtesy of Chef Justin Timineri who works for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“Today we’re starting a new program for younger children; first, second and third grade, so it’s great to be here working with the younger children.”

These are all skills and information the kids can take home with them.   But for many children, the meals they’re served at school make up a significant part of their overall diet.  Springwood Principal Claire Anderson says that fact has prompted some lunchroom changes.

“You know we’ve had several changes as far as menus and nutrition and I think there’s definitely a move toward making sure what students are exposed to is healthy and that they have healthy choices.  When you go in the lunchroom you’ll see there’s always a salad available and the students like that and we have a huge number of students who will opt for the salad lunch and I think it’s making a difference.”

The first big difference really wasn’t about food.  At least, not at first.  It was the transfer of responsibility for Florida’s public school lunchrooms.

“Last session, the legislature passed and moved all the child nutrition programs from the Department of Education to the Department of Agriculture, which is the National School Lunch Program, and the Summer Feeding Program and the Breakfast Program.  And we’re like one of only three states where those child nutrition programs are at the Department of Ag.”

Robin Safley is in charge of those programs for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  She says the transfer of authority came at the same time Washington was issuing new directives for in-school nutrition…

“The new meal pattern came down from the federal government, which requires an emphasis on fruits and vegetables in the School Lunch Program so we think that we’re in a pretty exciting position to marry up our farmers and our local growers with the school system so we can ensure the freshest of produce is available."

How can schools persuade kids, some of whom have never tasted fresh produce, to give it a try?  Safley says many schools now have their own vegetable gardens as a multi-level learning tool.

“Kids who are exposed to it, who get attached to it, understand where it comes from, understand the whole farming mechanism and agriculture piece of it – get their hands dirty a little bit – plant the seed; it grows, they water it, then they get to harvest it then you get to taste it, they are more apt to try it.”

So how is all this working in the real world of the public school lunchroom?  Leon County School Superintendent Jackie Pons has been talking with his colleagues around the state.  He says hopes are running high.

“I think it’s going to be a good thing.  I think everybody has to be patient because what they’re trying to do is to make sure that we use more of our Florida-grown fresh produce in our schools.  So I think it’s going to be a very positive thing as they’re moving these initiatives forward.  But it’s a little too early now to have them started.  It’s in the beginning stages, but it’s going to be great for our state and I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

A good direction for a state in which the childhood obesity rate is around thirty percent and Type Two Diabetes is showing up in grade school kids.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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