This month, we’ve been highlighting some of the consumer services offered by the department as we mark the 20th anniversary of the addition of “& Consumer Services” to the department’s name.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler likes to tell people that the work of the department touches the lives of every resident of this state every day from the food products and price scanners we inspect, to the gas pumps and commercial scales we check.
That is also true for many of the state’s littlest consumers — school kids.
The Food Distribution and Marketing divisions team up to operate the N.C. Farm to School Program, which helps North Carolina school systems put local fruits and vegetables onto the school lunch menu.
The program is in its 20th year, with a total of around $13 million in sales, which provides a boost to participating farmers and the North Carolina economy. But a second, and perhaps bigger, goal of the program is to help establish lifelong consumers of healthy, local produce.
“This program gives farmers another market, adding another avenue for what they are doing in terms of selling their products,” said Gary Gay, director of the Food Distribution Division. “But secondly, this program is getting kids to try local fruits and vegetables and hopefully they will be our future buyers, and the lessons they learn in school about where their food comes from will carry over into adulthood.”
In terms of kids’ favorites between fruits or vegetables, fruits win in a not-very-close race.
Among the more popular local items are strawberries, blueberries, apples and apple slices, peaches, and pears, when available, Gay said. But one leafy green — collards — has certainly exceeded expectations of staff.
“Our child nutrition directors say that they cook them and the kids really enjoy them,” Gay said.
Increasing exposure to new and different foods helps develop young palettes and build a foundation for a lifetime of better nutrition, said Ashley Acornley, a registered dietician with Triangle Nutrition Therapy in Raleigh.
“School breakfast and lunch programs are super important,” she said. “A large percent of kids, if they did not have these meals, they may not have access to nutritionally sound meals. The school environment is the best opportunity to build healthy habits.
For young children in particular, increased exposure to a variety of foods helps develop their taste buds and a comfort with different textures of foods. She said it can take 15-20 times of trying a new food to develop a taste for it and enjoyment of it.
“Having new fruits and vegetables available to try creates a sensation of normalcy around them, where they are used to seeing them versus if they have never seen them before, they might be less likely to try them,” Acornley said.
Fruits and vegetables provide much-needed nutrients for growing kids, which is also important for learning.
“Fruits and vegetables are great sources of fiber, which aids in digestion and helps you feel fuller; folate to aid in growth and development and vitamin C, which helps with immunity, which is super important for kids,” Acornley said. “If a kid is active, then the antioxidants found in fruit and vegetables help their body recover from exercise, too.”
More and more adults are seeking a greater connection to the source of their food, looking for local items in their grocery stores, at restaurants and through community supported agriculture services. The Farm to School Program helps make that connection for young consumers.
“If you are learning more about fruits and vegetables and where they come from, it connects people more to their food and creates better communication and understanding in general between farmers and consumers,” Acornley said. “The earlier you can start that the better.”
Gay said looking ahead 20 more years, he hopes to see all 115 school systems in the state participating in the Farm to School Program, and the program being able to add more local products for the schools, including frozen fruits and more convenience products that are chopped and cut for easier preparation.
“Adding frozen options would mean we could get blueberries and strawberries year round,” Gay said. If the success of fresh berries is any indication, that would likely be a big hit with schoolchildren.