Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Education

Thanksgiving lunch has upbeat ag commissioner talking school nutrition

TAMPA

On Friday, state Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and State Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, helped serve Kimbell Elementary students food that emulated the first Thanksgiving meal. Included on the menu: a traditional Spanish stew known as cocido, roasted acorn squash, orange slices, whole-grain biscuits and milk. Kids not only enjoyed the food, but learned that some historians think the first Thanksgiving occurred in Florida on Sept. 8, 1565 — more than 50 years before the ballyhooed gathering at Plymouth Rock.

"They're absolutely loving this," Young said. "One little girl over there said, 'Y'all are making me cry. . . . This is so beautiful.'

"I thought that was the neatest thing I've heard today."

The "neat" merging of food and education is just one of the measures Putnam has put in place since the Legislature made Florida the first state to shift school nutrition responsibilities from the education department to the agricultural department. In May, Putnam's department completed its first full school year overseeing the program.

Much like any other parent, Putnam wants to get kids to eat more vegetables. But it's a little different when you're overseeing a system that serves 4 million meals a day.

Putnam took time out from the special meal to share his vision for the program with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper.

How's it going?

It's going very well. We're seeing more fresh fruits and vegetables on the trays. We're seeing more of them being sourced from Florida. We're rolling out fun programs that are age-appropriate that we think are establishing healthy eating habits with the kids. Today's a good example of where we're trying to merge lesson plans with good nutrition. You've got Florida history in this. You've got a little geography in this, you've got some Native American culture in this, obviously some Hispanic culture in this as we celebrate 500 years of Florida and do it in a healthy way. This is a slightly modified version of what they had 500 years ago, but the kids like it. You can see the material that's disseminated around that we also tie in. It's in 20 counties now, we're about to do another 20 counties. We're becoming a national test bed on research on how to get kids to eat healthier, how to improve wellness, how to improve technology to connect with kids and identify menus they're going to like.

You mentioned that more home-grown fruits and vegetables are being served by the schools. Was that one of the reasons for the switch from education to agriculture?

In Florida what we have going for us that nobody else has is that our peak production time is during the fall, winter and early spring months when the kids are actually in school. Almost no other state has that. So for decades, we've been serving tater tots and ketchup, calling it a starch and a vegetable, and yet how embarrassing is it that a school in Plant City didn't have fresh strawberries or a school in Ruskin didn't have fresh tomatoes for their salads or a school in Polk County didn't have fresh citrus? It's kind of embarrassing. So when the Legislature made the decision to be the first in the country to give us this responsibility, they became co-investors in the idea that if we can introduce kids to healthier eating options earlier and develop some eating habits, it's going to pay dividends for the rest of their lives. When you look at 60 percent of our health care costs are managing diet-related illnesses, maybe we can start early and build some good habits in a state where everything we grow, your mother would be proud for you to eat.

How has the introduction of salad bars to elementary schools gone?

Salad bars have been around for a long time in the high schools and they were reasonably well-established in the middle schools. Now, introducing the salad bar concept to elementary schools is something that's gaining ground. Kids are no different than adults. They like to make choices. If you have a clam shell of lettuce and seven different toppings, it doesn't matter if they don't like cucumbers but they love tomatoes, or they love cucumbers and hate tomatoes, or they want green peppers. Every option on that salad bar is a healthy option, so they feel like they're not being dictated what to eat. But as they're building their own salad and developing their own tastes and preferences, we're seeing a higher satisfaction rate, for lack of a better term.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced?

Logistics. One of the early things we did was try to get the school districts to harmonize their menus so that we're operating like a restaurant chain. If you go into an Outback, you have the same menu in Brandon that you have in Pensacola. Before we took over, you had 67 different menus (in 67 different school districts) at different weeks at different times of the year. By building the economy of scale and showing them that even if we have a reasonably common menu. . . . If we say the peak season for strawberries, when they are at their most abundant and at their cheapest, is the tail end of March, let's try to get all of our school districts to put strawberries on their menu the third week of March.

So what's your next move?

As we continue to work out the kinks of getting healthier items and resolving the distribution issues, the next step, the last mile is this: We can get it on the tray but what are the barriers to the kids actually eating it and it not ending up in the garbage can? That is everything from presentation — we've seen schools in Pinellas serve stir-fry in a Chinese takeout box and that makes all the difference in the world. The new nutrition standards really ratchet back the salt, so what are other spices that are healthier but add flavor? You see a lot of cumin being used instead of salt. It's eye appeal, it's flavor, it's presentation — that's kind of the next step.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

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