Collier elementary students take a bite out of obesity

Nori St. Paul/special to the Daily News (3)
LEFT: Taitum Tomei, a fourth-grader at Lely Elementary, eats an apple wedge as part of the Farm to School Snack Program in Collier County. RIGHT: Christopher Lacross, 7, a second-grader at Lely Elementary, tears open a bag of apple wedges. The program provides fruits and vegetables to elementary-age students three days a week.

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Nori St. Paul/special to the Daily News (3) LEFT: Taitum Tomei, a fourth-grader at Lely Elementary, eats an apple wedge as part of the Farm to School Snack Program in Collier County. RIGHT: Christopher Lacross, 7, a second-grader at Lely Elementary, tears open a bag of apple wedges. The program provides fruits and vegetables to elementary-age students three days a week.

Nori St. Paul/special to the Daily News 
 Christopher Lacross, 7, a second grader at Lely Elementary, tears open a bag of fresh apples wedges as part of the pilot Farm to School Snack Program.

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Nori St. Paul/special to the Daily News Christopher Lacross, 7, a second grader at Lely Elementary, tears open a bag of fresh apples wedges as part of the pilot Farm to School Snack Program.

Nori St. Paul/special to the Daily New
Lely Elementary fourth graders enjoy apple wedges during the Farm to School Snack Program in Collier County.  Now through May, students will have three days a week to snack and learn about healthier food choices.

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Nori St. Paul/special to the Daily New Lely Elementary fourth graders enjoy apple wedges during the Farm to School Snack Program in Collier County. Now through May, students will have three days a week to snack and learn about healthier food choices.

Lely Elementary fourth-graders snack on fruit.

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Lely Elementary fourth-graders snack on fruit.

School days just got healthier for more elementary-age schoolkids in Collier County.

Three days a week, Collier County children such as second-grader Christopher Lacross are now eating nutritious fruits and vegetables because of a newly established health and education program.

The pilot program allows children to snack on foods during designated breaks. Florets of crunchy multicolored cauliflower, a juicy Clementine, or a crisp sweet apple wedge, were served instead of candy bar or chips.

Collier County Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton has approved the Farm to School Snack Program (F2SS) for Collier County elementary students.

F2SS is modeled after the hugely successful USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that is funded through a grant for Collier’s most economically needy elementary school sites. Collier is in its fourth year of FFVP and now with the new program, all Collier County elementary students, not just needy children, and also classroom educators will enjoy the selected fruits or vegetables now through May 30. The F2SS program is funded through the Collier Schools Department of Nutrition Services.

“This is very exciting for us to have these kids enjoy these healthy fruits and vegetables, especially the foods they would not otherwise get to try,” said Lely Elementary Principal Susan Barcillino. “And really, it is a program, not just snack time.”

About half of the students had never tried a radish but had that opportunity on a recent Wednesday.

“The radish was hot, hot, hot!” Lacross, 7, said. “I bit into it, and then I spit it out!”

As he spoke, he tore open his portion pack of fresh apple wedges, an obvious treat for the young boy.

“I love the snacks we get, and they are healthy,” he said, as the rest of the class laughed under the watchful eye of second-grade teacher Michael Nappi.

“The goal of the program,” said Vicki Stone, field supervisor of Nutrition Services for Lely Elementary, “is multidimensional. The kids get to eat and socialize, and this adds a fun element to the experience.

“We also have the educational part, such as our morning announcements on the intercom. All of the children get to hear ‘fun facts’ about the day’s fruit or vegetable, such as where they are grown. We feel this provides them with an integrated experience that will follow them to make better, healthier food choices on into adulthood.”

In addition, the program encourages kids to take their new tastes home and ask parents to purchase more fruits and vegetables in lieu of sugary, fatty or less healthy snacks. It is a lifelong habit-shaping model.

There is a need for this program. According to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in the U.S. has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The report said the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010, and the percentage of adolescents aged 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period. In 2010, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

“There are other components,” said Lucy Martinez, Lely’s manager of Nutrition Services. “We want the teachers to use the snack experience as writing, math and graphing prompts. This program adds value to the experience of learning. We know that we are helping change the children’s lives with programs like this.”

And many of the nutritious snacks are locally grown, benefiting farmers in the area.

Healthy eating in childhood and adolescence is important for proper growth and development and can prevent health problems such as obesity, dental problems, iron deficiency and osteoporosis. Schools are in a unique position to promote healthy eating and help ensure appropriate food and nutrient intake among students, Martinez said.

And on a basic level, that dreaded midmorning monotony, at least three days a week, is much more interesting, and sweeter, tangier, juicier and fun.

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