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New London — With only a few tiny crumbs of apple crisp and a smidgen of applesauce left on their cafeteria trays, it was easy to tell that "Apple Day" was a hit for 8-year-old Fabian Villate and his friend, 7-year-old Jason Cantave.
"I tried everything," said Villate, a second-grader in Michael Fusaro's class at Winthrop Magnet Elementary School. Along with the crisp and the sauce, that meant a cup of cider and some baked apple chips, and a high-five from the giant red apple whose real name is Sarah Doherty.
"I wanted it to be a surprise," said Doherty, between clusters of students gathering around for the rare chance to hug a large piece of fruit, her voice muffled through the thick foam costume borrowed from the state Department of Agriculture. "I'm hoping this will spark their interest in why I'm doing this and it will snowball after that."
Doherty, 23, is the FoodCorps worker newly assigned to city schools, and "Apple Day" was one of her first schoolwide events.
"I love kids and I love teaching them about the importance of nutrition and instilling healthy habits," said Doherty, who graduated in May with a degree in food science from the University of Massachusetts and worked on an organic farm last summer. "This is a great opportunity."
FoodCorps, a New York City-based nonprofit, is part of the AmeriCorps service network. Federal and private funds support the program, which is overseen in Connecticut by the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service.
"It's teaching kids about healthy food and where it comes from," said Dana Stevens, the UConn extension center FoodCorps fellow who oversees the program. "We want to educate teachers about how to use gardens as an educational tool, and give kids hands-on nutrition education, teach them about fresh fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them, and build relationships with local farms."
Founded in 2009, the program sends workers into 15 states. In Connecticut, FoodCorps workers have been assigned to 10 mostly urban school districts, including Norwich. The New London schools are new to the program this year.
Since starting in September, Doherty has been working to get her message out in classrooms and lunchrooms throughout the district, easily distinguished by her FoodCorps uniform — a purple T-shirt with the organization's name punctuated by a bright orange carrot. Her assignment lasts through July, providing her with a small stipend to cover living expenses and an educational award at the end to further her education or to pay off college loans.
"I like to sit and talk with the kids at lunch and ask them why they didn't take their fruits and vegetables, and I tell them why they're important, see what they like and don't like," she said.
Often, she said, students will tell her they don't like fruits and vegetables, but when she questions them further, she finds their exposure to many kinds of produce is limited. One girl, she recalled, had never eaten a pear. Doherty encouraged her to try one of the pears that day.
"She took a bite and said she actually really did like it," Doherty said.
At one school, she prepared kale chips by baking the dark green leaves in olive oil, salt and pepper, then served them to the students. Mostly, the students were receptive, she said. One even said they tasted better than Lay's.
At Winthrop, she's been teaching nutrition education to one class of third-graders, sometimes servings freshly made juice drinks of kale, carrots, apples and plums, or smoothies made of bananas and almond milk. In other lessons, she shows them how much sugar goes into a can of soda, sweetened iced tea, Gatorade or chocolate milk.
"They couldn't believe how much sugar they were drinking," she said.
At Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, she helped in one cooking class and is planning to start an after-school cooking club. She's also planning to organize the creation of vegetable gardens at each of the schools and get more locally grown produce into school lunches.
The apples at the Winthrop event Tuesday came from Palazzi Orchard in Killingly, and were served whole and made into sauce and crisp by the cafeteria staff, said Angela Rasmussen, cafeteria manager. The apple chips were donated by a group that went "gleaning" — gathering dropped apples and turning them into edible treats — and the cider was donated by Guida's Dairy.
Rasmussen said she likes to keep the atmosphere in the cafeteria fun and relaxing, and to give the students plenty of choices while encouraging them to eat healthy. She's looking forward to more FoodCorps activities this year, especially after the good start on Tuesday.
"Hi, honey, do you want to try some homemade applesauce?" she asked, as a pony-tailed little girl held her tray and nodded.
"Take another one, sweetheart," Rasmussen said, as a boy came back for seconds of applesauce.