Picayune pupils get a side of learning with their fruits and veggies

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 24, 2016

A first-grader at Roseland Park Elementary School enjoys some kiwi.

A first-grader at Roseland Park Elementary School enjoys some kiwi.

(Update: this story has been corrected to reflect that Four Seasons Produce provides the snacks that are part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.)

The pupils in Kristen Mitchell’s first-grade class looked warily at the neon-green slices of kiwi fruit in the plastic containers she handed out.

“These are kiwi,” the Roseland Park Elementary teacher said. “How many of you have had kiwi before?”

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Only a few hands went up.

After the children had taken a few bites of the exotic fruit, Mrs. Mitchell asked for words to describe the snack.

This time, hands went up across the classroom.





For the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in the Picayune School District, the mission to introduce children to new and healthy snacks was accomplished.

Just before 1 p.m. three days a week, cafeteria staff at the every elementary school in the district deliver healthy treats to classrooms. It could be kiwi or guava or another exotic fruit, or it could be muscadines that are native to Mississippi. Some days it’s raw sugar snap peas or julienned zucchini with a ranch dressing dip.

“The kids love it,” District Food Service Coordinator Debbie Byrd said. “They love to try new fruits.”

Broadening their palates is sometimes difficult at home, she said.

“Some parents can’t afford the high-end fruits we serve, and in some places, they’re not readily available,” Byrd said.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program started in 2002 as an experiment in a few districts in four states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service on a Web page about the program’s history. It expanded in 2004 to another four states, including Mississippi. Picayune participated at some elementary schools earlier this decade, and this year received a grant to serve all four elementary schools.

On one recent Thursday at Roseland Park, Food Services Manager Danica Barber and cook Hilda Avila wheeled carts piled high with trays holding 501 individual servings of kiwi.

The plastic containers were already counted out for each classroom. The distribution begins before 1 p.m. to comply with a program rule that snacks be served outside school breakfast or lunch hours.

If any child in the school has a food sensitivity, a substitute snack will be included, Byrd said.

After the pupils eat the treats, the teachers take a few minutes to talk about how the item of the day is good for them, where it comes from, how it’s grown, and other facts.

“It’s a total immersive experience,” Byrd said.

Mississippi allocates $50 to $75 per student per school year under the program, she said. The state’s allocation for the 2016-2017 school year was about $2.7 million, according to the USDA website, which administers the program nationally.

Participating districts are chosen based on the percentages of students receiving reduced-price and free lunches. The program serves all 50 states and U.S. territories.

The Picayune School District buys the snacks already prepared from its regular vendor, Four Seasons Produce in Moss Point. While some of the fruits are standard U.S. fare, such as apple or banana slices, Byrd says she keeps an eye open for something new.

“When it’s in season, we go ahead and grab it while we can,” she said. That way, Picayune children might get to try a starfruit or a mango.

Byrd says she occasionally hears raves from children about the fruits (and a few rants about broccoli, she admits).

A couple years ago, when the program was only being offered in Nicholson, she was shopping in a Picayune grocery store and saw the program’s lessons actually bear, well, fruit.

A young boy was telling his mother he wanted a mango, Byrd said.

“You don’t even know what a mango is,” Byrd said, quoting the mother. “You don’t even know if you’ll like it.”

“But I do like it! I had mango at school!” the boy told his mother.

Byrd said she intervened. “Do you go to Nicholson?” she asked the boy. He said he did. So Byrd said she explained the program to the mother.

“She was very interested in it,” Byrd said. “He was just excited that he knew what a mango was.”