TiSharkie Allen knows how important proper nutrition is to students.
As nutrition director for Peach County schools, Allen notices the difference it can make for students. They focus better, and their school work improves.
That’s why Allen was excited to learn that Peach County schools recently qualified for a nearly $100,000 federal grant, which aims to improve the quality of food served in school cafeterias.
The Farms to Schools Grant will allow school officials to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers and offer them to students. School and community officials held a meeting in early December to work out the details, and they plan to start the project this spring in all six Peach County schools.
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“It’s going to be a way for (students) to be educated about the importance of fruits and vegetables in their daily eating habits,” Allen said. “I also think it will be a way for them to be exposed to fruits and vegetables they wouldn’t ordinarily eat or be willing to try.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave more than $4.5 million to 68 projects in 37 states and Washington D.C.
One of the organizations to receive funds was Community Health Works in Macon, which decided to use its two-year grant for Peach County schools. The school system was a good fit agriculturally, said Maggie McCune, health and wellness coordinator and director of public outreach for Community Health Works.
“Peach County is a rural community and has access to a lot of farms,” she said.
Next semester, students will notice new fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays. Through a partnership with local farmers, officials hope to offer a new fruit and vegetable each week, McCune said.
And some of the grant money will be used to train cafeteria workers to prepare those fresh foods, Allen said.
“We’re used to grabbing a can and opening it up,” she said. “But now we’re getting them (fruits and vegetables) in a raw state.”
Additionally, students will take field trips to local farms and grow gardens at their schools.
“It will give them real-world experience,” McCune said, adding she hopes the grant increases nutrition education in the classroom. “Not that it’s left out, but it’s not emphasized enough.”
Georgia has the second-highest childhood obesity rate in the nation, with one in five children being classified as obese, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“We’re seeing more and more kids beginning to experience health consequences,” McCune said. “It’s scary because these are conditions once only seen in adults.”
That high obesity rate is due to numerous factors, including poor education. Many parents, for example, wrongly believe that fruit juice counts as a serving of fruit. Additionally, keeping fresh, nutritious food on the shelves can be expensive, McCune said.
That’s another reason Community Health Works chose Peach County for the grant -- about 73 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, McCune said.
Officials have taken some steps to fight obesity by reaching children in school. In 2010, the USDA enforced stricter meal guidelines, requiring schools to offer a certain amount of vegetables and restricting the amount of staarchy foods in cafeterias, among other requirements, Allen said.
With the help of the Farms to Schools Grant, Peach County schools can take those requirements a step further, she said. “The students spend the majority of their days through the week at school,” Allen said. “Having proper nutrition, it helps them function better.”
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.