Who's feeding Abagail?

Watford, team fight to feed kids one fruit and vegetable at a time
Aug. 18, 2014 @ 01:32 PM

Tiny Abagail Everhart has been patiently waiting all morning. But by the time the Summer Feeding van pulls up to the curb beside the rundown basketball court near the apartments where she lives, her emotions get the best of her.

“They’re here, they’re here,” she squeals, running towards the van before turning back and frantically waving to her friend, who is now running, too. “Come on, hurry.”

And then suddenly, as if on cue, children of all ages pour out from across the complex to join Abagail in what has become the highlight of their day — lunch. Sadly enough, for some of these children this is the only meal they will get.

According to the Agriculture Department,  over 17 million children across America are at risk for not having enough to eat. And while TCS’s federally funded Summer Food Service Program wraps up, Watford and the TCS nutrition team have been busy planning numerous healthy menus and snacks for the hundreds of students returning to class on August 25.

“There’s an incredible amount of thought, calculating and analyzing that goes into our menus and food selections,” explained Watford. “Not only do meals have to taste good so students will want to eat them, but they have to meet strict government guidelines regarding calories, fat content, sodium and more. We have to be creative and find new ways to get kids excited about eating healthy. Even though we are cooking in a cafeteria, I like to take a real culinary approach to cooking for our students.”

Watford is constantly on the hunt for federal or state grants and programs to help offset the cost of buying nutritious foods. For the past five years, she has applied for and been awarded the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant which she divides between Liberty Drive Elementary and Thomasville Primary School. This unique program provides elementary students with a variety of free fresh fruits and vegetables as a snack in the afternoon — separate from their lunch or breakfast meal.

This year’s grant totaling $73,900 will be used to purchase a variety of snack choices. Some are traditional like pineapple and oranges , while  some are more  exotic such as star fruit, ugli fruit, boysenberries and breadfruit. Teachers incorporate each fruit into their lesson plan so that students can learn the nutritional value, origins, economic impact, growing patterns and other uses for that particular fruit or vegetable of the day.

“Pomegranates are a big hit with the children — they just love them,” Watford said. “And even though they are expensive, we try to buy them once a year so they can have a treat. Last year, we had a wonderful teachable moment when one of our students who is from Mexico, where pomegranates grow, got up in front of her class and showed her classmates how to properly eat the fruit. She shared part of her culture with them and it was a wonderful example of how important that program is. It feeds their bodies and minds.”

Down the Line

While elementary school students are busy learning about food in the classroom, Watford and her staff carry some of those same lessons into all the Thomasville City School cafeterias.  Menu items are now clearly marked and labeled with their nutritional value and content.  According to Watford, schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal and comply with a variety of other specific nutritional requirements. Thomasville School menu’s typically provide students a host of healthy choices and a few old favorites with a twist such as pizza with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust or baked potatoes instead of  fried.

This year, Watford is not the only one excited about students returning to class. Her staff is as well.

“I love seeing the kids and having them come through my line and smile,” said Shannon Doughten, who works in the Thomasville High School Cafeteria. “This job is a gift from God. It makes me feel good about what we are doing as a team knowing that every child gets to eat. It really is a beautiful thing and gives me grace.”