FARM TO SCHOOL
Amy Ryals-Soto is preparing lunch for the babies. Today's menu is puréed veggies and fresh fruit. Then she'll prep a fresh meal for the toddlers, no canned stuff or bleached flours in the recipe. Which may not correlate to the pleasant nature of the Cape Coral-based Seedlings Academy lunchroom in Fort Myers. Then again, it just may.
Amy Ryals-Soto is preparing lunch for the babies. Today’s menu is puréed veggies and fresh fruit. Then she’ll prep a fresh meal for the toddlers, no cans or bleached flours in the recipe. Which may not correlate to the pleasant nature of the Seedlings Academy lunchroom in Fort Myers, the youngest children calmly gobbling puréed carrots, fruits and berries, the older preschoolers munching on baked turkey or ground turkey sausage, green beans, organic noodles and orange melon, organic milk to wash things down. But then again nutritious food just may be why the lunchroom in late morning is mellow―no processed foods laced in preservatives and sugars that research deems less healthy, that may prompt or complement a child’s mood swings, his/her inability to keep up because they’re sleepy or jumpy from the sweeteners. Cape Coral-based Seedlings Academy and other Southwest Florida learning centers are on the fresh-food bandwagon, providing organic, frozen or fresh meals to children enrolled in their programs. Public schools are also onboard, participating in the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a project in Florida that pushes the idea of surplus farm and school garden produce and farm-style recipes circling back into school cafeterias. Florida agriculture agencies, in fact, send chefs to public schools to teach food-prep techniques and to help shape cafeteria menus. The big picture is a national push by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, health groups and others to wean children from less-nutritious foods. The old food pyramid guidelines, in fact, have been replaced with MyPlate, which is more about grains and proteins, heavy on veggies and fruits. Former First Lady Michelle Obama backed the nutrition program as part of her Let’s Move campaign. However, Trump administration officials have recently indicated some of the nutrition guidelines may be rolled back. The fresh-food movement in Southwest Florida schools coincides with the food as medicine push at such places as Lee Health, which in some cases means prescribing plantbased or whole-food diets to those with health problems. Lee Health is Florida’s only hospital system to prescribe such diets to qualifying patients. Seedlings Academy started offering natural food meals in 2014 when its director purchased the Cape Coral preschool. Allie Kilburn Kaminski says fresh food seemed right, although some parents at first disagreed and bailed. Enrollment has rebounded, Kilburn Kaminski opening a second Seedlings at the former Pace Center for Girls in Fort Myers. Both preschools also provide an “organically nurturing environment,” meaning that staff members use chemical-free diapers, wipes, creams, sunscreens and bug sprays. The humor, if it is such, is that Seedlings’ children
sometimes fuss when the broccoli is gone. And parents often invite themselves for lunch, she says, smiling. “We do what you do for your own child,” Kilburn Kaminski says, her toddler daughter in a nearby highchair tossing back cut green beans like candy kisses. “The best way to go is to do what’s best for the kids.” Watching our children get heavier in the last 30 years has prompted reductions in lunchroom sugars, starches and salts, health officials insist, and fewer heat-and-serve items, more fresh greens and fruits. Some schools have also added extra recess time to get these children out and playing, something fewer of them do than their earlier counterparts. Another countermeasure is to allow those on public assistance to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, card for food plant seeds and potted plants. Obesity affects a range of things, including classroom focus/ energy, mood swings and poor self-esteem, according to research. The greater problem is that unhealthy children morph into unhealthy adults, those parents teaching their kids it’s OK to load the shopping cart with junk food. Preschools providing healthier menus are vital for a concerned mom, says Catharina Romanski, the mother of a small boy at Fort Myers Seedlings Academy. “It has been a great experience,” she says of her child’s further introduction to fresh foods. Nutritionists blame our snacking culture on a food industry that stuffs packaged goodies with preservatives. Yet the
answers are as plain as the leafy stuff on store shelves, says Jennifer Hagen, a family consumer sciences agent with Lee County Extension. It’s an agricultural, sustainable living and natural resources agency with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The agency, for example, is taking gardening and culinary training to an east Fort Myers neighborhood of mostly low-income families, Hagen explains. Such areas are called food deserts, places where there are fewer fresh fruits and veggies in corner markets. Children in these food deserts will more likely consume candy, chips and sweet drinks, only because these are the only available things, Hagen and others agree. Also, better food can get expensive. So county agents circulate in Florida, teaching and coaxing the farm-to-table/farm-to-school messages, partnering with Goodwill and state farmers to sponsor gardening and kitchen workshops to those living in food deserts, for example. Franklin Park Elementary in Fort Myers has started a food-sharing gardening partnership, as have other schools in Florida. Students at Cape Coral’s Trafalger Middle School pick veggies from the school garden for a culinary class. The school also offers certified agri-science courses to its students. The farm-to-table movement has taken over large cities that encourage farming on vacant parcels in Chicago and Detroit, for example, produce that reaches and feeds thousands. Many urban farmers today have bright futures. The move away from meat to plant diets is gaining energy in America, with its estimated 7.3 million vegetarians, some 23 million choosing some form of a veggie diet. Lee Health doctors
last year, for example, started prescribing plant-based diets and light exercise for those with hypertension and pre-diabetic/weight problems. It was termed a lifestyle change, sometimes complemented with medicine. But the hospital’s goal is get patients off meds―entirely. Those results have been startling, administrators insist. Lee Health also introduced an integrative medicine component in Bonita of naturopathy and homeopathy treatments, a blending of Western technology and Eastern methodology. Although insurance doesn’t cover such care, those seeking a different approach to health line up at the door, says Dr. Heather Auld, the integrative medicine program’s director. Back at Seedlings Academy in Fort Myers, the first lunch shift is ending. Like their parents might, the children pat their bellies, ready to tackle the rest of the day. There is, however, a side effect to a healthy diet of fresh veggies and fruit, says Kathy Hagmann, the school’s director―the little ones use lots of diapers. “They’re healthy, you can tell that,” she says, smiling.
The fresh nutrition movement in Florida schools coincides with the food as medicine push in hospitals such as Lee Health in Fort Myers.
Amy Ryals-Soto is chef at the Seedlings Academy in Fort Myers. She uses no processed or canned foods in preparing meals for kids at the preschool. It’s part of Florida’s push to get fresh/ organic foods in lunchrooms.