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How two N.J. school districts are trying to serve healthier lunches with locally grown produce

A new pilot program is serving up salads and vegetables grown by N.J. farmers to schools in Camden and Bridgeton.

Students at Buckshutem Road School in Bridgeton, N.J., fill their bowls with fresh produce from the salad bar on May 19.
Students at Buckshutem Road School in Bridgeton, N.J., fill their bowls with fresh produce from the salad bar on May 19.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Eighth-grader Dante Howell loaded up on two bowls of salad greens with scoops of vegetables, bypassing a ham, egg and cheese croissant sandwich, and tater tots on the school lunch menu.

Howell, 13, has embraced the salad bar at the Buckshutem Road School in Bridgeton, N.J., part of a new campaign to promote healthier eating. A football cornerback and baseball shortstop, Howell is health conscious.

”This is where it starts, while we’re young,” Howell said while eating lunch with his classmates in the cafeteria. “We want to stay healthy.”

That is the motivation behind a pilot launched in March in Bridgeton and Camden by Common Market, a nonprofit local distributor, to infuse locally grown fruit and vegetables and products into the lunch menu. Common Market hopes to support diverse farmers in the state.

The program, which runs through July 31 to include summer feeding, serves about 6,000 children in Bridgeton and Camden schools. Both districts are economically disadvantaged and offer universal free breakfast and lunch programs.

Campbell Soup Co. is funding the Camden initiative with a $90,000 grant through Full Futures, a program that seeks to foster school nutrition environments. Common Market, which has chapters in Philadelphia and around the country, is spearheading funding for the Bridgeton program, with about $40,000.

“The response has been amazing,” said Rachel Terry, Common Market’s national partnerships director. “These meals offer a lifeline for many students.”

There may be as many as 12 million children living in households where there is not always enough to eat, according to the federal government. Children who eat breakfast regularly perform better academically and have fewer behavioral problems, studies show.

» READ MORE: ‘The system is failing us’: Why kids at a Philly school went hungry, and what it means for the district’s bigger picture

Before students began arriving at the school in Bridgeton, a community of about 25,000 located 40 miles southeast of Philadelphia, cafeteria workers began preparing meals for five lunch periods. They also serve breakfast and snacks for about 900 students.

The salad bar, stocked daily with 15 pounds of lettuce, fruits, and vegetables, has become a popular option, especially among older students. Two other district schools have salad bars, and the high school offers made-to-order salads, said Food Service Director Warren DeShields.

“We’re introducing healthy nutrition to the kids’ lives,” said DeShields, a former soul chef. “We might be the only meal they get.”

When students began filing into the cafeteria for the first lunch period shortly after 10:30 a.m., many approached the salad bar loaded with a lettuce spinach mix and chopped toppings. They seemed to enjoy the strawberries, grapes, and blueberries, not so much the onions.

“For some of them, it’s the highlight of their day,” said Lencola Jones, cafeteria manager. “They look forward to it.”

The students get nutrition lessons to whet their appetites and introduce them to the new food offerings, selected by a registered dietitian. They were also instructed on salad bar protocol and learned how to use tongs, Jones said.

Between lunch periods, cafeteria worker Donna Bellone restocked the salad bar. To allow for social distancing, some students prepared a bowl of salad and returned to their classrooms.

”We thought there would be resistance. They love it,” DeShields said.

Some of the greens and spinach served are produced by Desmond Hayes, a Black grower and founder of GeoGreens, a year-round indoor hydroponics growing operation based in Hamilton, N.J. He typically produces up to three tons of microgreens, leafy greens, and herbs monthly at his vertical-growing facility.

Hayes, 37, of Sicklerville, a former construction manager-turned-entrepreneur, began growing several years ago and opened the business last November. He started with a few customers, mostly restaurants and a senior living facility, and expanded to soup kitchens, pantries, and schools.

In a 2,000-square-foot facility, Hayes, who holds degrees in civil engineering and environmental science, tends to his operation where plants are grown without pesticides in water instead of soil. The germination room is carefully monitored for pristine growing conditions, and visitors must put on protective gear.

Stacks of plants fill the room from the floor to the ceiling. Hayes uses an automated system to treat city water that is pumped in to nourish the plants, check pH and humidity levels, and activate growing lights. For now, he runs the operation solo. He hopes to increase his facility to 20,000 square feet.

Hayes harvests huge heads of lettuce, collard greens, bok choy, and spinach that is so clean they don’t require rinsing. He delivers some of the produce nearby, or clients pick up from his location. He also has a small online business.

“I cut it, harvest it, and it goes right to where it needs to go,” Hayes said. “It still has all of the nutritious value.”

In the Camden school district, the farm-to-school pilot program has been operating in seven schools and has been well received even by picky eaters, said Food Service Director of Nutrition Arlethia Brown. The menu options include locally grown collard greens, cabbage, string beans, carrots, zucchini, oatmeal, and fresh fruit, she said.

Friday is “Try Day” when students get a chance to sample new items before they’re added to the menu, like a breakfast salad — eggs and sausage on a bed of lettuce, or asparagus fries prepared with garlic, Parmesan cheese, and honey. She has postponed adding a salad bar because of the pandemic, but students can order a side salad with lunch.

She said chefs have helped the cooks prepare meals to “elevate food taste.” She hopes to expand the program to hold cooking camps to involve parents so that they can make healthier meals at home, too.

Because of the menu changes, officials have discovered there are more students who are vegetarians. The district hopes to expand the program to its remaining nine schools in the fall.

“We’re the Garden State. Why not utilize food grown right here?” she said. “No matter where they are, students should be eating well.”

The farm-to-school program has drawn the attention of the state Agriculture Department, and a delegation plans to visit Bridgeton High School on Friday to tour the school’s greenhouse and gardens. The lunch menu will include carne asada tacos prepared with pork, corn, zucchini, and cilantro from local farms.

Perry hopes the visit will drum up support for possible legislation that would give grants or reimbursements to districts that buy additional products from local producers for school meals. Her group estimates farm-to-school programs would cost about $5 million to implement statewide.

“This program is a win-win for schools and farmers,” she said.