Students at McNeal Elementary School were greeted by a talking watermelon as they returned from lunch on Tuesday.
Skye Grundy, a dietician with the School District of Manatee County, had donned her watermelon duds in honor of the district’s Farm to School Week, a week dedicated to highlighting the role Florida agriculture plays in nutrition.
Standing at the front of a class of third-graders, Grundy — as a watermelon — talked to the children about the importance of filling half their plate with fruits and vegetables every time they eat. Joining Grundy were Leslie Jones from Jones Potato Farm in Parrish and Scott Rush from Lipman Produce, a national tomato company with operations in Manatee.
Jones and Rush extolled the virtues of vegetables to the children, who were surprised to learn that the tomato on their hamburger at McDonald’s could have come from a farm in Manatee County.
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“When I think of tomatoes, and stuff like that, they feel like they are from other countries,” 9-year-old David DuJardin said. “But then I learned about how they come from here.”
Afterward, many students also said they had never thought about where the food came from when they ate at a restaurant.
“When you go to a restaurant, you usually think it (the food) is from the grocery story, but now that you think of it, the food is from around the community,” said Patricia Conteh, 8.
David also said that hearing from local farmers showed him being a farmer wasn’t an old-fashioned job for people far away. He said Tuesday’s visit confirmed that he wants to be a farmer when he grows up.
Grundy said interactions with local farmers, exposure to vegetable gardens and a range of other low-key nutrition-centered events can be effective at getting children to eat healthy food.
“There is no one there pressuring them that they have to take the food, the fruits and vegetables, and sometimes their friends will be more willing to try something, and sometimes they’ll try it just because their friends are,” Grundy said.
Grundy said she hears stories of children who have been involved in a school garden or nutrition activity asking for obscure healthy treats at the grocery store after learning about the food at school.
Regina Thoma, director of food and nutrition services, said the district tries to serve as much local food in school cafeterias as possible. During Farm to School Week, schools will be highlighting different foods classified as “fresh from Florida.”
“It helps them understand the value of agriculture in their community and the state,” Thoma said. “Also just the general thoughts of where food comes from.”
The potatoes the students ate in the McNeal cafeteria — just before hearing from the talking watermelon and the two farmers — were one example of a “Fresh from Florida” product. The spuds came from Jones Potato Farm in Manatee County.
“That’s really cool,” said Madelyn Keller, 8. “I never knew there were big fields of potatoes near us.”