Columbia Public Schools joins local non profit to help food-insecure children

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COLUMBIA - Columbia Public Schools plans to start a new nutrition program in partnership with a local non profit, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, to promote healthy eating habits.

According to CPS’s website, the program would serve third and fifth grade students at eight elementary schools with high rates of free and reduced-price lunches. The schools include: Alpha Hart Lewis, Elliot Battle, Benton, Blue Ridge, Derby Ridge, New Haven, West Boulevard, and Parkade Elementary schools. 

According to executive director of the agriculture center, Billy Polansky, CPS will be responsible for hiring a “Farm to School” coordinator, who would lead hands-on gardening and nutrition-related activities in the schools, as well as bringing students out to the center's demonstration farm for field trips.

Polansky said, at the farm, center educators would provide the students with lessons supporting the schools’ learning outcomes and nutritional goals.

“Our project is going to expose children to gardening, nutrition, cooking demonstrations, food and vegetable samplings to help them connect better with good food and good nutrition, which should improve their physical health and their mental health,” Polansky said.

He said the program would offer 17 distinct activities both in the schools and at the farm. For example, the “Farm to School” coordinator would set up samplings and demonstrations of healthy food at school lunchrooms, and give the students opportunities to get some hands-on experience of preparing healthy snacks.  

He said CPS does a good job of providing fresh fruits and vegetables to the students.

“The challenge is getting the students to put those on their tray and to want to eat them,” he said. “So by choosing these activities, which engage students in a positive way around fruits and vegetables, then the goal is that the students will eat more of those fruits and vegetables.”

He said Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture would collaborate with the coordinator during field trips.

“Here at our Urban Farm, the activities would be things like planting and harvesting, learning about how food grows,” he said. “All of our activities have a tasting component, so the students get to harvest something from the farm and taste it.” 

According to CPS’s website, student nutrition is linked with higher rates of attendance, improved reading comprehension and overall engagement in the school day. The website says the coordinator would monitor the students’ attendance, test scores, and fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Nutrition and health are tied to things like academic achievement and behavior and mental health” Polansky said. “So, when we can have activities that engage students around fresh food, then it’s gonna encourage them eating fresh food and being healthier, and ultimately, having better physical health, better mental health and better school outcomes.”

He said the program selected third and fifth graders as target clients so organizers can test the effects on MAP testing.

Polansky said if the pilot program ends up working well, there’s a possibility of bringing it to the next level.

“If we see success in this, there’s a potential to expand to other grades and other schools,” he said.

Polansky said the agriculture center will submit an application for a Children’s Services Fund of $140,000 from Boone County Community Services Department this week. If the application is approved, CPS’s website says, the project will begin July 1, 2018 and end December 31, 2019.