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More local, healthy food needed in schools, state panel says

TAMPA — The menu was to die for: Latin-spiced chicken with an avocado sauce, yellow rice with corn and sweet peppers, a green bean and cabbage slaw with lime and cilantro and honey-glazed fruit.

And, of course, there were cartons of flavored milk packing 22 sugar grams into 8 ounces.

If only schoolchildren ate this well and were as fit as the dancers who performed for a state panel that met Wednesday at Orange Grove Middle Magnet School.

But, paradoxically, hunger and obesity abound in a state that's a leading provider of winter produce.

"Florida schools should be awash in Florida fruits and vegetables," said Adam Putnam, the state's agriculture commissioner, who was in Tampa to discuss student nutrition. "There are no excuses for failure. We can solve this."

The Legislature took a first step this year when it transferred oversight of the federally funded school lunch program from the education department to agriculture.

Critics feared the change would give too much sway to agricultural interests. Dairy farmers, for example, have long resisted attempts to pull flavored milk off school menus.

But Putnam said the switch creates opportunities to serve healthier meals, which will lead to better eating habits for children and their families and, ultimately, lower health care costs all around.

And he acknowledged the economy benefits when the food is grown in Florida.

The 40 guests at Orange Grove included growers, suppliers, school nutrition officials and health educators.

After feasting on a meal of mostly Florida ingredients — which Putnam insisted could be prepared for the cost of a school lunch (about $3) — they discussed obstacles to serving local and healthy food.

Among them:

Growers often find it inefficient to make small deliveries to a large number of schools, which have limited storage space. Suppliers generally deal with large growers so they can be assured quality food.

Many do not even bid. "We need more competition," said Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition for the Hillsborough County schools.

Some growers suggested the state help establish cooperatives that would link the small farms to major suppliers. "Florida is a huge state," said Paul Allen, owner of R.C. Hatton Farms in Palm Beach County. "There's room for everybody.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough schools, described the school-based health and wellness committees in her district, which have led many schools to start afternoon running clubs, as a model that could be replicated.

As for how to get kids to eat their vegetables?

Nick Bergstrom of Pero Farms, also in Palm Beach County, said it helps to take children on field trips to farms and entice them with the colors of fruits and vegetables.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

More local, healthy food needed in schools, state panel says 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 11:05pm]
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