MEXICO — Thanks to a $68,000 federal grant, most elementary schoolchildren in Western Foothills Regional School Unit 10 schools have several chances each week to snack on fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s all about getting kids exposed to healthier foods,” said Jeanne LaPointe, food service director for the school system that comprises the Rumford, Dixfield and Buckfield areas.
It’s also a chance for students to discover that they like foods they have never tried.
“I learned that I like pears,” said Mountain Valley Middle School seventh-grader Ashley McNamara.
Middle school students have had the chance to munch on fresh fruits and vegetables for the past three years, thanks to the annual grant. This year, all elementary schools in the regional school unit are participating.
“There has been pretty good consumption, but it’s so new in the elementary schools,” LaPointe said. “It will take some time.”
At MVMS, baskets filled with bananas, apples, grapes, strawberries and other fruits are located in the hallways twice a week. Youngsters can grab a healthy snack on their way to class or after school.
“It helps if you are hungry before gym class,” said seventh-grader Abby Elliot.
Once a week, students prepare fresh vegetable platters for each classroom in the building for a mid-morning snack.
LaPointe said some of the vegetables came from the school’s garden and many others are grown locally or somewhere else in the state. Same for the apples, with many coming from Turner orchards.
Eligibility for school participation is based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches. At MVMS, that number is 74 percent. The other participating schools, which include all RSU 10 elementary and middle schools except Dirigo Middle School, have a free or reduced lunch rate of more than 58 percent, which is the minimum for the grant, LaPointe said. She hopes next year’s grant will include Dixfield Middle School.
The healthy fruit and snack program accompanies the district-wide free breakfast for all students and the removal of soda and candy machines.
MVMS Principal Ryan Casey said the program also teaches dining etiquette. For example, he said, if a child wants a few strawberries, he or she must use tongs to place the berries in a container.
He said children also learn how to eat breakfast properly in the classroom without making a mess and must clean up after themselves.
The nutrition program’s major goal, though, is to encourage healthy eating.
“A healthy body and a healthy mind,” LaPointe said.