The San Joaquin Valley produces fruits and vegetables for the nation. Why are the school children living here being deprived of this healthful and delicious bounty?

That's the question Terri Spezzano asked when she was hired to be the nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County six years ago. She made it her mission to get fresh local food in the hands of the county's youth.

"Kids are eating canned peaches that have come from orchards next to their schools, been shipped sometimes overseas and then back again," Spezzano said. "That's amazing to me, when they could walk out the door and literally pull one off the tree. It doesn't make sense."

When Spezzano first approached farmers for donations of fresh fruits and vegetables, they balked.

"They would say, 'Oh, kids won't eat my vegetables,'" Spezzano recounted. "But it's been great to watch kids try things like rainbow chard, spinach and bok choy. It turns out, they like it a lot."

The Stanislaus County farm-to-school nutrition program contains three primary components:

Nutrition education in the classroom

Working with a six-member team of nutrition educators, Spezzano created a unique classroom education series that focuses on crops grown in the county and uses a newsletter to convey information about the local farmers who grow them. Fresh produce and newsletters are delivered each month to classrooms, and children taste the produce with their teachers, learn fun trivia and nutrition facts, and then read about farmers, some who hail from families that have been part of the community for generations.

 

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For example in March, Ratto Bothers Farms donated rainbow chard. For most of the students, it was the first time they tried chard. They were amazed by the vibrant colors and in letters to Ratto Bros asked how they got the colors into the leaves. The kids are now calling rainbow chard "vegetable candy," Spezzano said.

All the details, puzzles, recipes and advice are compiled in "Dirt Fresh News," a newsletter with a name no youngster can resist. The newsletters go home with the children to inform their parents about their exposure to new produce.

"When you go to the grocery store, ask your mom, dad, grandpa, etc. to buy rainbow chard so you can have your family try it at home," the newsletter advises. "Make a chard zombie smoothie." (Find the recipe in the Dirt Fresh News rainbow chard issue.)

Ratto Brothers has been donating to the program since 2008. According to Dirt Fresh News, Ratto Brothers is part of a Stanislaus County family who've been in the area since 1905. The family farms more than 1,000 acres near Modesto. The company's success through the generations has been due to the enormous pride the family takes in the quality of the herbs, fruit and vegetables that are delivered to their customers, Spezzano said.

Spezzano doesn't shy away from introducing children to unusual vegetables. One edition of Dirt Fresh News features daikon radishes, large root vegetables with a spicy bite. The word daikon comes from the Japanese words dai (large) and kon (root). The vegetable, which looks something like a giant white carrot, can be peeled and sliced into thin chips, then eaten with dip or tossed into salad.

Spezzano said her children go to local schools and she's part of the community. Shopping at a grocery store recently, a mother approached with a daikon.

"She asked, 'This is what you fed my child, right? She really liked it.'" Spezzano said. "It's been a lot of fun."