College Gardens fifth-graders get to the bottom of healthy eating
During a press conference at College Gardens Elementary School to discuss the state's efforts to provide healthy food for its students, University of Maryland, College Park farm management specialist Jim Hanson seemed astounded by the questions from the young reporters in the crowd.
"Would it help if we showed them the raw data? Would it help if we actually showed them what we're eating in school?" said fifth-grader Veeraj Majethia.
"We need you at the university," Hanson said.
Veeraj is one of more than 100 fifth-graders at the Rockville school that participated in the student press conference May 12 to learn about the benefits of eating locally produced food and Maryland's Jane Lawton Farm to School Program.
The school organized the event with help from the Audubon Naturalist Society's GreenKids educational outreach program.
The students had done their research and were ready with questions.
Several months ago, Veeraj and classmate Josiah Belfon-Valentine, both of Rockville, set out to determine the nutritional value of dishes based on their ingredients served in their school cafeteria. Their findings were so staggering that Veeraj said he no longer eats food prepared there.
"We calculated the nutrition and learned a side of macaroni and cheese here has more calories than a Big Mac," Veeraj said. "It's 564 calories."
He and Josiah hope College Gardens and Montgomery County Public Schools will introduce more nutritious meal options and better lunch service in the future.
According to the Montgomery County Public School website, the lunch menu for elementary school students must include an "entree-vegetable combination with two sides and milk." A peanut butter and jelly pocket and grilled cheese pocket are also available for students. Vegetables can range from green beans and corn to French fries and tater tots.
Other speakers at the press conference were state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, Karen Fedor of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Richard Montgomery High School student and author Samantha Brown, Montgomery Victory Gardens director Gordon Clark, Montgomery Parks Community Garden coordinator Ursula Sabia Sukinik and parent activist Carrie Witkop.
The Jane Lawton Farm to School Program, signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in 2008, brings produce from local farms into school cafeterias and helps educate students on where their food is grown or produced and how to eat healthy. It is named after Lawton, who died in 2007 and was a member of the District 18 House of Delegates who formulated the bill that spawned the program. Raskin introduced the bill in the Maryland General Assembly after Lawton's death.
"Food does not come from the grocery store," said Raskin to the crowd of fifth-graders. "You know that, right?"
Equipped with homemade reporters notebooks and pencils, the students at College Gardens, a 2010 Maryland Green School award recipient and one of the first primary schools in the state to offer an International Baccalaureate program, made most of the experience, firing questions one after the other.
Despite the press conference running longer than expected, many questions went unanswered.
"This was very cool," said Josiah, 11, after the event. "Sen. Raskin was fantastic. He was selected senator for a reason."
College Gardens' Principal Albert DuPont II was so impressed with the event that he announced plans to invite Montgomery County Public Schools food distribution staff to the school for another press conference.
He also told the students they would be receiving an extra 15 minutes of recess, much to their visible delight.