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Vol. LXV, No. 1
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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
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School Lunches Get Federal Assistance as Kids Learn Where Cranberries Come From

Ellen Gilbert

“Yes, kids, New Jersey is called the Garden State for a reason,” observed Princeton University chef Rob Harbison, one of four chefs participating in the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative (PSGC) farm to school program. “When we went to the Farmers Market here in Princeton my own kids thought the vendors working the stands went to ShopRite for the produce they sell,” said the Cranbury resident. “Well, after doing the Farm to School program, I can see what a difference our program can make and how well if fits into the new school lunch program legislation.”

The legislation “Chef Rob” was referring to is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act approved by Congress in mid-December. In addition to making healthful school lunches available to more students, the act includes a provision, supported by Representative Rush Holt (D-12), that will provide $5 million in annual funding for Farm to School programs that bring locally or regionally grown fresh produce into schools.

“The idea of children going hungry in this country is hard to imagine,” observed Eno Terra chef Chris Albrecht, another PSCG program participant. “This bill is the first step toward getting them the nutrition they need in order to grow.”

A day after the legislation was passed, Mr. Holt made a lunchtime appearance at Community Park Elementary School (CP) to discuss how the new law strengthens school lunch programs and how it can help combat child obesity and child hunger.

“What do you have for lunch?” Mr. Holt asked as he helped a child uncork her thermos. He approved of the warm soup in the thermos, as well as the apples and cheese brought by other children at the table. “They’re just the kind of thing we’re talking about,” he said.

Other speakers at the program included N.J. Anti-Hunger Coalition Director Adele LaTourette. “The number of hungry children in the state of New Jersey is growing daily,” she reported. “We’re hoping this bill gives schools the incentive to provide healthier food across the board.”

Good for Farmers

Providers of fresh produce stand to benefit from the new legislation as well. Chickadee Creek Farm owner Jess Niederer, a 15th-generation farmer in Pennington, noted that with the average age of local farmers now at 57 and rising, there was “a need to assure farmers producing food that they can sell it.” She described herself as “encouraged and thrilled” by the new law.

“It doesn’t come from boxes or factories,” said Mr. Holt as he addressed the children and adults gathered in the CP lunchroom. “Food has to start on the farm, growing out of the ground.”

For the adults in the room, Mr. Holt reported that the new legislation contains $21 million more for school meals, and enhances children’s eligibility for what is often their only good meal of the day. Junk food will be removed from school menus, while local farm connections are promoted.

Several speakers noted Governor Chris Christie’s recent minimization of school meal reimbursement, which resulted in a smaller number of schools serving fewer meals. The new Federal legislation is the first change to school nutritional standards in three decades.

“Rush Holt’s visit to Community Park Elementary School was a delicious way to celebrate the passage of the child nutrition bill and Mr. Holt’s farm to school funding within that legislation,” said PSGC member Karla Cook. “With that modest beginning, our lawmakers have begun to reconnect our nation’s children to the land, the farmers, chefs, the local economy — and to their own palates. Now, it’s up to teachers, administrators, parents, and community members across the country to apply for those funds and build their own programs that teach academic subjects, critical thinking skills, and a vocabulary of flavor beyond ‘awesome,’ ‘really good,’ and ‘nasty.”


Last year PSGC organized several “tastings” of fresh ingredients like Swiss chard and tomatoes for district students. Each tasting, which was attended by students, parents, and teachers, included local chefs creating recipes using only locally grown produce.

The program, a result of a $30,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was, by all accounts, a huge success. “We are humbled by the reaction to our work,” said Ms. Cook. “Teachers tell us it’s the best program they can remember. They confide that they can’t believe they really like raw beets and they’re astonished by the sourness of a fresh cranberry. Principals smile and cheerfully extend the lunchtime to allow students time to taste. Children smile and wave to us when they see us around town. And the participating chefs, farmers, and producers, all featured in videos shown in the classrooms before the monthly tastings, are greeted like rock stars in the cafeterias.”

“Days after doing the event I was so pleased to have many children come up to me and say ‘I never saw a fresh cranberry before and now I love them, I asked my mom to make fresh cranberry sauce when I got home,’” reported Mr. Harbison.

School Superintendent Judy Wilson was also among the CP event participants. “Thirteen percent of Princeton Regional’s pupils are on free or reduced fee lunch programs,” she noted. “Congressman Holt has always been a champion for education and for children. His latest push for better quality of school lunches, farm to table initiatives, and more funding for the National School Lunch Program will benefit millions of students nationally and many locally.”

Ms. Wilson also had high praise for the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative. “PSGC has been a strong positive force within all of our schools. With gardens at all six schools, a curriculum has been designed to integrate the beauty of the gardens and the joy of physical work in the soil with science, history, and health education. The parents and community members who lead and volunteer for PSGC are tremendous role models for our students.”

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