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Bringing local produce into schools is good for students’ health and local farmers

Published 6:00am Saturday, July 21, 2012

For those of us that love local produce, this time of year is one of the best.

Farms and gardens are hitting their stride with the bounty of fruits and vegetables coming in increasing quantities.

For older Alabamians eating local fruits and vegetables is nothing out of the ordinary.

Growing a garden, stopping by a local farmers market or stand and looking for the freshest produce at the local supermarket is part of life.

People grew up knowing when the first tomatoes came in or when the last of the peaches were done.

It was also an important way to make ends meet; local produce is often the best deal for dinner.

Everyone knows the health benefits of local produce — even with a piece of fatback in the collard greens.

Unfortunately, the next generation is losing our important fresh food traditions, and it could cost them their health.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found that the obesity rates in Alabama high schools are among the highest in the nation.

The study found 17 percent of Alabama students in grades 9 through 12 were obese last year, and another 15.8 percent were considered overweight.

It is no mystery why one-third of all Alabama teenagers have a weight problem. The culprit, according to the study, is an increasingly poor diet.

The study showed Alabama teens drink more sugary drinks than their counterparts in other states.

Combine that with more processed food and junk calories, and we have a growing problem — literally.

The danger of early obesity goes beyond current health risks. Young people who become overweight increase the chance they will remain so for the rest of their lives. Obesity is linked to higher rates of heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, hypertension and cancer.

This weight epidemic has real economic costs as well. Ten years ago, officials estimated costs associated with obesity in Alabama were more than $1.2 billion, or $293 per person.

That number is has grown significantly, and will continue to grow if we do not do something about it.

One important step was taken in the last legislative session.

A bill by Democratic Representative Elaine Beech aims to bring more locally grown fruits and vegetables to Alabama’s school cafeterias. The Farm-to-School Procurement Act p

romotes collaboration between state agriculture and education officials and frees up individual schools to buy from local farms.

School is where many Alabama children get one — and often two — meals at day. It is an important opportunity to introduce the best in local foods.

Lunchroom workers care about the nutrition of their students, yet are often hamstrung about what they can serve when the school system buys highly processed foods in bulk.

Now these cafeteria workers can make tomato sauce or peach cobbler and use fresh local produce.

Healthy bodies lead to healthy minds. Allowing local produce into our schools is good for local farmers and good for our children.

 

 

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each week.

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