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NYC May Be Revolutionizing the Way Kids Eat

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By Joshua Frank

When one envisions a stereotypical school lunch, a plate of leathery cheese pizza and a high fructose-laden soda with a side of green jello may come to mind. Fortunately this concept of lunch is soon to be tossed in the trash at a handful of New York City public institutions.

Currently 25 schools around NYC are taking part in a unique program where kids will have a chance, not only to eat whole, organic foods, but also to work in the soil and see little seedlings mature into healthy, edible plants. It's not the first time school gardens have become the flavor of the month, but it's the first time it's happened on a significant scale in the country's largest and most diverse city.

While the steel and concrete landscape of NYC may seem uninhabitable to much of anything green and living, its five boroughs actually house the largest network of urban gardens in the entire country, which includes some 600 city-run gardens that service over 20,000 residents. The program, called GreenThumb, also provides educational workshops about gardening and nutrition to many New Yorkers.

The GreenThumb plots are just a fraction of the total public garden spaces in the Big Apple, most of which serve low income, minority communities. Indeed NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while being criticized for a number of policy implementations (especially in relationship to his handling of other school system policies) of late, has received accolades from public health advocates for his support in banning trans fats from restaurants as well forcing all chain establishments to post calorie counts of the food they sell.

Now Bloomberg has teamed up with one of TV's spunkiest celebrity chefs, Rachel Ray, whose Yum-o! organization is helping to provide logistical support for the building and maintenance of the new school garden program.

"We are very excited to form this public-private partnership with Mayor Bloomberg to help teach New York City youth where food comes from and in turn provide them with encouragement to make healthier choices," said Rachael Ray. "In addition to empowering kids to cook and have a healthier relationship with food, these programs will also allow us to show kids how the culinary arts can be a positive career path, which is one of the major goals of our Yum-o! organization."

The purported goal of the "Garden to Café" program is to connect these gardens and school lunches through seasonal harvesting celebrations. The City will be providing small grants to expand the program next year, and while the its rollout clearly needs additional funding to make a substantial impact on student health, it is nonetheless being touted as an example of what lunch programs across the U.S. should strive to reflect.

"My response to this initiative? Yes!," New York University Public Health Professor and renowned author Marion Nestle recently said in and interview. "This is a terrific thing for Rachel Ray to take on. If anyone can do it, she can. I'm aware of a few NYC public schools that include growing food as part of the curriculum or community service, and those programs work well enough to inspire others."

The fact is, anything that could possibly contribute to a reduction of obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children in NYC is likely to be popular among public health proponents. The New York Academy of Sciences reports that over 23 million Americans suffer from Type 2 diabetes. The disorder is also disproportionately more common among minority groups in the U.S. and is associated with a diet laden with high-fructose corn syrup and low fiber.

A major objective of the lunch program is to introduce healthy foods that perhaps aren't a staple in their current, processed food eating habits.

"As a kid, I was thrilled by the taste of fresh vegetables and berries that I watched grow and there is plenty of evidence that kids who know how to grow food will be much more adventurous about tasting it," Prof. Nestle added.

Of course, in a population-dense city with minimal open spaces, additional school gardens will have to be developed innovatively, and in some cases, in unorthodox locales. In the East Village at the bustling PS 364 vegetables are being grown in pickle barrels. Up in the Bronx at Discovery High School a hydroponic system is operating to allow the school to grow organic food in a limited area. Over in Brooklyn rainwater collection and compositing is also helping PS 146 to sustain its blossoming school garden.

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