Harlingen offers new healthy foods for students

HARLINGEN — It’s not just apples and pears anymore.

This year children at nine elementary schools in the Harlingen school district will be offered a broader range of fruits and vegetables than ever before.

A $215,045 grant from the 2016 – 2017 Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program will allow school children to sample different varieties of apples and other fruits. They’ll be offered that dreaded white cauliflower and then they’ll stop and say, “Wait a minute. That’s not cauliflower. It’s purple. And that stuff next to it is green and then there’s some yellow.”

Well, guess what. It IS cauliflower and here’s your chance to try something new, administrators will tell them.

The grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will open a whole new world for many children who haven’t had many opportunities to try new and healthy foods.

“It’s fantastic,” said Judy Baker, director of child nutrition for the Harlingen school district. “We will be able to expose children to a variety of fruits, such as dragon fruit, persimmon, kiwi and apricots.”

The grant is to be used exclusively to fund healthy snacks, and the extra produce will be purchased both locally and out of state. Harlingen school district spokesman Shane Strubhart said the program will introduce students to healthy foods and will advance the 3E’s — Education, Exercise and Eating Right.

Baker said the new fruits and vegetables — passion fruit, rainbow carrots and bell pepper — will be included in snacks as opposed to the sugary sweets of the past. Those snacks could be counter-productive in more ways than one, giving children a quick sugar boost that would end quickly, resulting in an energy drain.

The introduction of healthier foods into elementary school cafeterias brings a host of benefits.

“We’ve definitely seen a correlation between a high consumption of fruits and vegetables at a younger age,” Baker said. “As they get older, these school children have the highest level of consumption of fruits and breakfast and lunch.”

The district has received the grant for the past seven years, Baker said. This is the largest it has ever been awarded, with more schools being included in the program.

“Last year it was six, before that it was three,” she said. “It’s based on a percentage of students on the free and reduced meals for the district.”

The schools qualified for the grant money under the Community Eligibility Provision of the USDA. The CEP is a provision from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. CEP eliminates the burden of collecting household applications to determine eligibility for school meals.

Baker said the district-wide percentage for free and reduced eligibility was established with the CEP and was used to determine the socio-economic status of all nine elementary schools.

Those schoolchildren, because of limited economic means, will benefit more than most from new experiences.

They’ll learn about different varieties of apples, including Fuji, gala, red delicious, Granny Smith, McIntosh, and Rome beauty, and they’ll learn the difference in taste. They’ll also receive carrot sticks, pomegranate, cherimoya and red bananas.

Grapefruit comes with such colorful names as Flame, Marsh, and Lavender Gem. And then there will be the more familiar Ruby Red and Star Ruby grapefruit. Perhaps seeing something familiar paired with something new and intriguing will be a way for the students to identify with the journey toward better eating.

“We’ll be handing the snacks out in the afternoon,” Baker said. “We’ll be handing out information about the fruits and vegetables.”

And so these new fruits and vegetables with exotic names from far away places will come together in a concert of color, tantalizing the wonder and the imaginations of young minds who’ve never met them. And in the middle of it all will be the more familiar sights, one in particular: Our very own Rio Red, which was developed right down the road in Weslaco.