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In 3 Howard schools, fruit and salad bars being put to the test

Talbott Springs Elementary School first grader Hassan Tanner makes his first trip to his school's new fruit and salad bar, which opened April 6. Bollman Bridge and Laurel Woods elementary schools will also open up fruit and veggie bars, which are funded by a $200,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation, this month.
Talbott Springs Elementary School first grader Hassan Tanner makes his first trip to his school's new fruit and salad bar, which opened April 6. Bollman Bridge and Laurel Woods elementary schools will also open up fruit and veggie bars, which are funded by a $200,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation, this month. (Nicholas Griner, Howard County Public)

Students at Talbott Springs Elementary School are going bananas over a new fruit and veggie bar in their cafeteria.

"It's really awesome," said fourth-grader Carlos Lopez, whose lunch tray was covered with carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes following a trip to the produce bar. "They have good fruits and vegetables."

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Stocked with fresh, seasonal produce, from strawberries and grapes to broccoli and carrots, the bar is giving students at the Columbia school healthier options at lunchtime.

"There's more fruits than we had before in the cafeteria and different salads that we hadn't tried," said third-grader Marcin Davies, who was munching on oranges and slices of raw green pepper from the bar, which opened April 6. "Yesterday I tried small tomatoes for the first time. I liked them."

Laurel Woods and Bollman Bridge elementary schools are also opening produce bars this month as part of the first phase of a two-year pilot food and nutrition program funded by a $200,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for healthy lifestyles in Howard County.

"For me, underscoring this is the connection between healthy kids and educational attainment," said Nikki Highsmith-Vernick, the foundation's director. "Healthy kids learn better and do better in school."

The second phase of the program will start at the beginning of the 2016 to 2017 school year with a revamping of the food menus at the three pilot schools, said Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition for the Howard County school system. .

"The whole name of the game is to encourage kids to eat healthy starting at the younger age, recognizing that if you inculcate good habits when you're young, then you're more likely to stay with those good habits," Ralph said. "That's really the message."

The fruit and vegetable bars work toward this goal, Ralph said, because they allow students to choose what they want to eat.

"Choices and color are always important for young kids," he said. "You could give the kids an apple or banana every day, but they get fed up with that, you know? So you've got to mix it and match it, see what kids like. Because there's no point in putting something on their tray that they don't like, and then you have to dump it."

The school system and the Horizon Foundation chose Talbott Springs, Bollman Bridge and Laurel Woods as pilot schools, Ralph said, because their administrators were open to the program and because they have a high percentage of students — more than 40 percent — who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals in school.

In order to be eligible, a student's family must earn less than federal poverty thresholds, which are calculated based on household size and cost of living. For the 2015-2016 school year, a family of four must earn less than $44,863 a year to participate.

The school system is making a concerted effort to increase eligible students' participation in school meals, Ralph said, and the hope is that the food and nutrition pilot program will accomplish this at the three schools.

"Of course, why not make sure that those less fortunate students participate to the maximum extent possible?" he said.

But he emphasized that all kids, regardless of whether or not they receive free and reduced-price meals, will benefit from the program.

"All of our students should be encouraged to consume fresh fruits and vegetables from an early age," he said. "Once you can get them into that habit, it can stick with them for the rest of their adult lives. And hopefully as they try new things, they can influence their families and their parents when they go home, so that this is a sustainable exercise."

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Talbott Springs Principal Nancy Thompson said that all of her students who pay for lunch or participate in the free and reduced meals program are required to take a trip to the produce bar before they enter the cafeteria line.

In planning for and implementing the produce bar, Thompson said that she and her staff had to work through many kid-related logistics, such as the flow of traffic through the cafeteria and the appropriate level of the sneeze-guard. She said that the first day with the bar was hectic, but that on the second day, "It felt like we had been doing this for a thousand years."

Her students are so excited about the fruit and veggie bar, Thompson said, that they have been putting in birthday requests.

"They're like, can I have strawberries on my birthday?" she said. "I think the kids are very grateful. They're really grateful for this opportunity."

During their lunch period Tuesday, fourth graders at Talbott Springs rushed to line up at the produce bar, while peering into the bins of peppers, lettuce and strawberries and deciding what they wanted to eat.

"They have some of my favorite fruits," fourth-grader Jennifer Asante said, pointing to the strawberries on her lunch tray.

Fourth-grader Nasir Newsman said that the produce bar is good, but that it would be even better if it had pineapple.

"That's my favorite fruit," he said. "Can I have that on my birthday?"

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