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NO MORE MYSTERY MEAT

The tempting smell of pepperoni pizza drifted through the air as students poured into the cafeteria.

But 11-year-old Cameron Landry walked straight past the cheesy slices and started piling organic lettuce, pita pockets and blueberries on his tray.

Sounds like a nutritionist's dream. But it's reality at Lincoln Elementary. The school's organic salad bar has proven so popular -- and surprisingly economical -- that all Olympia grade schools now have one.

"The food is pretty good. And it's much better because you actually have a choice," Landry said as he chowed down on salad. "Otherwise, it's 'eat this or nothing!"'

While fried chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers still reign supreme in most cafeterias, a small but growing number of schools are turning to organic food as a way to improve children's health and fight obesity.

The Seattle school district recently adopted a new policy banning junk food and encouraging organic food in school cafeterias. California school districts in Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Palo Alto have organic food programs. And through a program sponsored by the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, schools in Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut have or are getting new vending machines stocked with all-organic treats.

"This is the beginning of the sea change," predicted Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. "Unfortunately, it's coming at the same time school districts all over the country are squeezed by a fiscal crisis."

The biggest hurdle to getting organic food in schools -- especially in schools not in liberal, crunchy-granola cities on the West Coast -- is the cost. Organic food, produced without pesticides, growth hormones or other additives, generally costs more. That's a tough sell when schools are struggling to pay for books and teachers.

But Lincoln Elementary has managed to cut its lunch costs, by 2 cents a meal, while offering a full organic menu. Eliminating dessert, though initially unpopular with students, covered most of the added cost of organic meals.

"Our kids don't need dessert -- they have all this great fruit. It's not like kids don't get sugar," Lincoln Principal Cheryl Petra said. She's been pleasantly surprised that students and parents across the district have embraced the program.

"It's about a long-term investment in the health of our children. We are the responsible adults. We can do this," Petra said, gesturing to the crowd of children around the organic salad bar.

Organic industry taking off

Organic food accounts for less than 2 percent of U.S. food sales, but the industry is growing like a weed. Sales of organic food increased 21 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to the Organic Trade Association. Industry analysts expect sales to grow by about 20 percent annually in the next few years.

Mikah Berga eats organic tomatoes during lunch at Lincoln Elementary. School meals are getting new scrutiny in light of the obesity epidemic among U.S. children. The latest government statistics show that about 31 percent of children ages 6-19 are overweight, and 16 percent are obese.

"Organic" doesn't necessarily mean "healthy," and pigging out on natural foods won't help your waistline. But organic programs such as the one in Lincoln Elementary have successfully gotten children to eat more fruits and vegetables, which will help improve their health in the long run.

For Gary Hirshberg, the wake-up call came when he asked his teenage son what he'd eaten at school one day.

"Pizza, chocolate milk and Skittles," was the reply. Not terribly shocking, except that Hirshberg is president and CEO of the New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm, the largest organic yogurt company in the country.

Thus his campaign to put organic foods in schools was born. Stonyfield Farm stocks schools with refrigerated vending machines that sell healthy treats such as Newman's Own Pretzels, Stretch Island Organic Fruit Leather, Silk Soy Milk, and of course Stonyfield Farm Fruit Smoothies. They're a hit -- even in inner-city neighborhoods that don't match the white, upper-income demographic profile of most organic devotees.

Meanwhile, the Olympia parent who sparked Lincoln's meal makeover is becoming something of a Johnny Appleseed for organic school lunches. Vanessa Ruddy first proposed organic menus when her son was at Lincoln Elementary and was pleasantly surprised to find school district officials receptive. She's spoken to parents and school officials from around the country about the idea.

"The desire is there," she said. "It's something for the whole country to follow."

Her son just started middle school, and when she went to a meeting at the school last week she noticed all the teachers looking at her.

Ruddy said, "The first thing they asked was, 'Can you do something about the school lunch program?"'

Written by: Associated Press


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