Farm to school program educates about healthy eating habits

It’s lunchtime at Alphabets Preschool Center in Asbury Park. Crudités with ranch dipping sauce is one of the items on the menu. Four and five-year-olds dig in family style to carrots, zucchini, celery, fresh fruit and more. Owner Esther Piekarski was eager to be part of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program.

“The Farm to School program is an effort to get every available resource from the farm into schools, whether it be the farmer, whether it be the product produced by the farm and anything in between that,” said NJ Department of Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher.

“Farm to School is a movement. It is not a mandated program. It is dealt and managed differently in every single state, but Farm to School programs and initiatives are taking place all over the country,” stated Beth Feehan, the coordinator of the Farm to School program at the NJ Department of Agriculture.

The department offers resources to schools and farmers on everything, from taste tests to school gardens.

“When the children find themselves with these fresh fruits and veggies at an early age, they gain an appreciation for it and incorporate it into their daily lives,” Fisher said.

As the preschoolers play with fake fruits and vegetables, downstairs in the kitchen Chef Lisa Baker cooks with real food and everyday creates a nutritious breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack. The Child and Adult Care Food program, funded by the USDA, is the preschool’s main funding source for their nutritional programs. Piekarski writes a new menu each month.

“When you think of a preschool or day care center, I think a lot of times people think about just, ‘I want my child to learn ABC, 123,’ but the truth of it is you’re embracing the entire child. You can’t have just one part without the other parts, with social, emotional, physical. It’s extremely, extremely important. The child’s going to have so much more of a chance at success in life if we don’t isolate any of the components that go into what a health, young child should look like, and food is extremely important,” Piekarski said.

Alphabets Preschool Center also created a small school garden about four years ago. Piekarski’s husband tends to it, and he even wrote a curriculum so teachers could incorporate the fruits and vegetables into their daily lessons. They hope to eventually expand the garden and get more parents involved.

“We talk about food deserts, and we talk about not having available fresh fruits and veggies, that’s mostly a part of not having the demand, because when there’s demand, those things won’t be there. So these kids coming in and saying ‘where’s the broccoli’ as they do they go through life, ‘where are the apples,’ instead of, ‘where is the soda pop,'” said Fisher. “They really do create that demand. And we know that nutritionally they’re really helping themselves.”

After their healthy lunch the kids get to take a nap. Maybe they’ll dream about what’s on tomorrow’s menu.