Grant will expose students to variety of fresh fruits, vegetables
Jaquelyn Calderon knows why the vivid magenta-colored fruit with tiny black seeds and pineapple-like rind is called dragon fruit.
"The outside looks like dragon skin," the Lake Valley Elementary School third-grader said, turning over her piece of fruit to show the bracts, or fins.
Lake Valley and Mountain Valley Elementary students receive a fresh fruit or vegetable snack twice a week, thanks to a grant through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Dragon fruit, also called pitaya or pitahaya, is only one unusual fruit Tami Hitt-Wyant, registered dietician for the Humboldt Unified School District, has selected in the first week of the program.
On Tuesday this past week, students tried "Saturn" peaches, also known as "donut" peaches.
"The goal for the first month is to expose them and get excited about produce probably not seen at home or on our cafeterias' fresh fruit and vegetable carts," Hitt-Wyant said.
She is seeking all sorts of odd and unusual food with the $57,000 Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant. The grant applies to the two schools based largely on the free and reduced lunch rate in the area, Hitt-Wyant said. LVES received $30,070, and Mountain View Elementary School received $27,384, which should cover the purchase of a fresh fruit or vegetable snack twice a week for all students in both schools all year long.
Some third-graders in Sue Theaker's class agreed the dragon fruit wasn't as sweet as prickly pear fruit, but still tasted good.
Ernesto Maciel described the middle of the fruit "like a watermelon, but a different color."
"The dragon fruit is in the cactus family," Hitt-Wyant said. "The insides look like the color of the fruit on the prickly pear, a brilliant purple, and it has tiny seeds like a kiwi."
Dragon fruit comes from the Hycocereus undatus family, often called pitahaya or pitaya. It is a type of cactus that grows in warm climates in Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central and South America, Hawaii, and in the Sonoran desert of southwest U.S. Bats and moths pollinate the fruit.
Hitt-Wyant said the program is set up to expand the variety, and increase consumption of, fresh fruits and vegetables, and ultimately to make a difference in students' diets and health.
The district applied for the grant in the past and had not been accepted, but this year the program received more funding. The program began in 2002 in four states, and this year it is in schools in all 50 states.
Bette Chmielewski and Anna Johnson, Food and Nutrition staff at LVES, delivered the food bags to teachers with the same excitement in which the bags are received.
"After just one delivery on Tuesday, you should see the kids' faces light up when we come in," Johnson said.
In Theaker's classroom, most of the third-graders finished the dragon fruit and then left late for recess because they wanted to plant the seeds.
"It was a spontaneous planting," Theaker said with a laugh, as she scooped potting soil into double-layered paper cups. "We'll see if they sprout."
The program requires that schools offer the fresh produce during the school day but outside of mealtimes. Students taking a late lunch usually eat their snacks in the morning, and students eating an early lunch have a mid-afternoon snack.
"We'll continue as long as the money lasts," Hitt-Wyant said.
The district uses Shamrock Food as its main food distributor. Shamrock has worked with other schools with the FFVP grant, she said, and the company provided a list of special order products. The district also uses Stern Produce, and is looking locally for farms that can provide fresh snacks to 1,100 students at a time.
"I really want people to know our school food is not what they're used to. We are doing some really great things," Hitt-Wyant said.