Several of the major agricultural organizations in California have educational programs for the state's public schools, but none are as ambitious as the $7 million project Western Growers Association has initiated through its charitable foundation.

California Agricultural Production Consultants Association (CAPCA) has its Plant Doctor program and the California Fertilizer Foundation has its school flower garden program. Now the Western Growers Charitable Foundation has announced an ambitious goal to raise $7 million to plant a vegetable garden in every California and Arizona school without a garden — 7,000 campuses.

The fresh produce association is organizing educators, nutrition policymakers and state legislators to create awareness with families of the importance of a healthy diet and the link between nutrition and food production.

The fundraising campaign, Growing With Children, was launched at Noralto Elementary School in Sacramento where a groundbreaking ceremony is set for March 25.

WGCF Chairman A.G. Kawamura said the foundation is determined to fulfill the visionary project started in 1995 by the California Department of Education. The department's efforts, along with alarming statistics on obesity and diabetes released by children's health agencies, have helped galvanize the fresh produce association's efforts.

Poor records

According to the California Center for Health Advocacy, of 6.2 million California school-aged children, 1 out of 4 children are overweight and 40 percent were unable to pass physical fitness tests. Almost half of Arizonans are considered overweight with just under a fourth of Arizona residents consuming five or more fruits and vegetables per day.

“We have forgotten the relationship between nutrition and good health and we have lost touch with agriculture's place in society,” said Kawamura, a produce farmer. “That disconnect and lack of understanding is creating tremendous challenges. By placing this valuable learning resource in each school, we're hoping they will find an appreciation for our society's agrarian roots and learn about how their food is produced. The obvious benefits of eating healthier foods, like nuts, fruits and vegetables is a win for both kids and our industry.”

Teamwork

WGCF has teamed up with several organizations on this two-state plan, including the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom, Ag Network, California Women for Agriculture, California Department of Education, California Department of Health Services, California 5 a Day for Better Health! Campaign, Gold Country Region 5 a Day Power Play! Campaign, National Gardening Association, University of California Cooperative Extension, Phoenix Revitalization Corporation's Casa de Nueva Esperanza and Phoenix Children's Theatre.

T-Systems International Inc., San Diego, has donated drip-tape irrigation systems to each garden planted through the Growing With Children campaign.

“Our goal is to provide a hands-on opportunity to learn about agriculture and the importance of nutrition,” said Danielle Blacet, who is based in WGA's Sacramento office and is coordinating the garden program. “We're working with some great organizations and we have reached out to every state legislator. The response has been amazing. They recognize what we are trying to accomplish and how important it is for us to reach our goal.”

WGCF 501(c)(3) tax identification number is 93-1201791. Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, contact Blacet at (916) 446-1435 or Marilyn Martin, Arizona Director of Science and Government Affairs at (602) 266-6149.

WGA's 3,500 members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and nearly 70 percent of the fresh fruit and nuts grown in Arizona and California, about one-half of the nation's fresh produce.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com