By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
A Mississippi food revolution is underway and getting its start right here in Starkville.
The Emerson Family School is the first preschool in the state to replace processed foods with fresh ingredients and meals made from scratch.
The Fresh Start Campaign was the idea of a few concerned parents who were uncomfortable with their young children being fed processed food at school.
“It all started when my daughter moved to the 1-year-old room, and I checked what they served to the kids in the menu. I was happy to see that they had balanced meals with fruits, vegetable (and) grains. It’s later on that I figure that it was canned goods,” Clemence Bouvard said. “Salt and sugar alter the original taste of food, and I wanted our kids to be able to experience the real taste of a green bean or a pear. They have all their life to add salt to their meal if they want to, so let’s not impose that to them at age 1.”
Parents were concerned their children were learning a preference for processed foods. Lisa Long, whose 1-year-old daughter attends Emerson, said she hopes the program will teach the children healthy eating habits that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.
“I also think that if you educate kids at early age to grab an apple instead of a cracker or a juice when they are hungry, it will impact their eating behavior in a positive way for the rest of their life,” Bouvard said. “Alison Buehler and Marion Sansing from Gaining Ground (Sustainability Institute) proposed to start a farm-to-school program, so we thought that it was even better if we could have fresh produce from local farmers.”
Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute is an organization that helps support small farms in the state and encourages organizations to do the same. It has supported the new program at Emerson from the beginning.
Buehler and Sansing teamed up with Nate Rosenberg, a Harvard Law student who studied a program called Farm to School and its potential to work in Mississippi through the Food Policy Initiative of the Harvard Health Law and Policy Clinic.
“We discussed the possibility of conducting a pilot program at Emerson, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” Rosenberg said. “The morning after our meeting, Alison called to tell me that the director of Emerson was on board and that she had a dedicated team of parents ready to make it happen. All of us met the next week to discuss how to get started. GG and the parents were incredibly well organized, and the director and school cook were completely supportive.”
Farm to School works to connect schools with local farmers to get healthy foods into school cafeterias to improve child nutrition and support local farmers. Starting next month, the school will be getting some help from Don Autry, a local farmer and owner of D&G Farm. His farm will provide the school with fresh vegetables for lunch three times a week at cost.
“My wife and I adopted two children and when they came to us, they just weren’t in good nutritional shape. We were trying to grow to keep our family healthy, but now we’re trying to extend that to where all kids are eating healthier,” Autry said. “A lot of kids don’t have any idea what fresh fruits and vegetables are; when they do eat fruits and vegetables, they’re out of a can. So when Alison Buehler called and asked if we wanted to get involved, we jumped on it. We’d like to see it get to the point where Mississippi farms provide food to schools around the state.”
Buehler said the program is a good thing for everyone — the children are getting better nutrition from the very beginning which will help them live healthier lives, and the local farms are getting a much needed boost in sales.
“It will help support the local farmers and economy,” Buehler said. “It will cut down on travel costs, too. It’s all about localization. Can you imagine how many local farmers we could support if just the Starkville School District got involved?”
It wouldn’t have been possible without Laura Roberson, who has been feeding the children at Emerson for nearly seven years. She is well known for being a great cook who can make even the processed foods taste good.
“Cooking is just a passion of mine. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m relaxed so work doesn’t ever feel like work to me,” Roberson said.
She has been cooking for over 40 years and credits her mother for teaching her. That experience goes into every meal the Emerson students eat.
“I went in the cafeteria the other day and I was amazed at the variety of vegetables and the kids were eating them and really enjoying it,” Cathy Brown, preschool coordinator at Emerson said. “None of this could have happened if we didn’t have someone who really knew how to cook.”
Roberson developed a menu that will be both healthy and within the budget, which has been one of the biggest challenges the school has faced. In Mississippi, the budget for food for preschool programs is approximately $1.75 per child per day. Each child eats breakfast, lunch and two snacks at the school. Fresh foods are often significantly more expensive, even when they’re grown locally.
“That’s the problem. The processed food — like 600 rice crispy treats — is really cheap, and sometimes it’s hard to find a replacement,” Roberson said. “Sometimes the healthier food isn’t available in bulk.”
Although it is still a work in progress, she said, they’re finding a way to do it. Each day, the children get two healthy meals made from scratch that include fresh vegetables or fruits. The snacks include fresh oranges, whole grain crackers, fig bars and string cheese.
In February, representatives from Emerson will give a presentation at the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi’s summit in Jackson. The summit will focus on communities living sustainably on a tight budget. The Emerson representatives will report on their progress and offer advice on how other communities can get involved.
“A lot of parents and teachers are concerned about the fact that Mississippi is the most obese state and are really willing to act now to change that. I think it’s a reality in people’s mind that we need to give kids good eating habits from early ages,” Bouvard said. “Emerson Family School is a nurturing place for our babies, toddlers and preschoolers, so serving healthy food completes this curriculum perfectly.”
Eventually, Buehler said, they would like to see the program go out to schools across the state — they just have to prove it can be done.
“The Fresh Start Campaign is particularly exciting not only because it will be the first program of its kind within Mississippi — and will be, at least for a short time, the only local Farm to School program in the state — but also because it could serve as a model for programs in other states,” Rosenburg said. “There just aren’t that many Farm to Preschool programs out there right now, despite the fact that they have enormous potential to influence early childhood eating habits.”
Those involved with the Fresh Start Campaign know it won’t be easy to convince other schools to get on board, but it’s something they are willing to fight for.
“Anytime you do something different or out of the norm, it can be scary. But we have to keep an open mind and at least try,” Brown said.
For more information on programs like the Fresh Start Campaign, visit http://www.farmtoschool.org .