While parents often struggle with getting their children to eat healthy, Sodexo, the student nutrition provider for 11 school districts throughout Rhode Island, is ready to help.
Sodexo, a partner in First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative to end childhood obesity, sent nearly 40 representatives from throughout the state to Pezza Farm at 2279 Plainfield Pike in Johnston Tuesday morning to meet with farmers and participate in a tour of the farm, which will be supplying fresh vegetables to students during the upcoming school year.
“I’m looking forward to this partnership,” said Shelley Pezza, who, along with her family, owns and operates the farm. “We’re growing vegetables specifically for them. They gave us their order and told us what their expectations are and we’re trying as hard as we can to grow fresh vegetables for the kids.”
When the vegetables are ready, Pezza staff picks them and sells them to Roch’s Produce of West Warwick, who then distributes the food to Sodexo. It isn’t exactly an easy task, said Pezza, as Mother Nature cannot be predicted. For Pezza, it’s both exciting and scary.
“For vegetables to be ready on a specific date is really the most stressful part,” she said. “Peppers and tomatoes are easy because you pick them continually, but with cauliflower and lettuce you have a short window. The lettuce bolts and the cauliflower bruises. [Sodexo is] very patient with us, which is huge.”
But Sodexo employees have no complaints. Production Manager June DiLorenzo said she chose the farm because of its wide variety of vegetables. This, she said, will best help Sodexo teams plan and create menus that meet the new federal school meal guidelines created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, while supporting local agriculture.
To prepare, seeds were planted the last week of July on nearly 12 acres of land. The selection includes lettuce, cherry and grape tomatoes, green and purple peppers, yellow and butter beans, white and purple cauliflower, broccoli, escarole and kale.
During the tour, Sodexo teams were treated to a hayride and explored the crops to come up with menu ideas. They are all excited about exposing the children to healthy meals.
“Having them try new vegetables, as well as the fact that they are grown locally, hopefully will create some excitement,” said Marc Roy, general manager for Warwick Public Schools. “We’ve offered kale salad and have had some success. At first, it was a little alien to them but it’s important for them to see it more than once so they have more than one opportunity to try it. If they pass it up the first time, they might try it the second or third time.”
Lynne Conca, general manager for the Cranston team, agreed and noted the importance of working with the farm directly. She also said it would be fun to bring the children to the farm.
“Maybe we can get some field trips out here so the kids can see where the food comes from,” she said.
Donna Walker, general manager of West Warwick, thinks that’s a great idea.
“They see it at the farm and then they see it on their plates,” she said. “If you serve it, they will eat it and it just grows and grows from there.”
Further, Walker said helping them plant their own crops is another good incentive for children to eat healthy.
“Right now, I have a little pumpkin patch at one of the schools,” she said. “The third graders helped plant it and they each have their own pumpkin. We’re going to roast the pumpkin seeds and make pumpkin breads.”
Not only do the children understand the importance of eating healthy, they also get the opportunity to work together and learn how to cook.
“It’s all about getting the children involved,” Walker said. “Some of these kids live in areas where they don’t ever leave the city. Sometimes, a child only knows about a red apple; they don’t know about Granny Smiths or a golden delicious because they are not exposed to it. This is about exposure and putting it in front of them.”
Pezza Farm, which occupies 48 acres of land, was established in 1947. In addition to produce, they also have 12 greenhouses and sell mums, annuals, perennials and poinsettias, and house animals such as horses, ducks, sheep, chickens, roosters, cows and, of course, two dogs, Tucker and Copper. The farm is open from March to Dec. 24, with fall activities such as hayrides and scarecrow making in the fall.
Sodexo provides healthy school meals while supporting student well-being and achievement in the following Rhode Island districts: Cranston, Warwick, West Warwick, Cumberland, Exeter-West Greenwich Regional, Foster, Foster-Glocester Regional, Glocester, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket Public Schools.