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Some Washington Schools Go Organic for Lunch
By REBECCA COOK Associated Press Writer

September 24, 2004

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.

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?'''

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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