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CPS to expand Eat What You Grow program to 130 schools thanks to $500,000 grant

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Public Schools students will have more access to fresh beets, peppers and fruits thanks to a $500,000 grant to support the district’s Eat What You Grow program.

“We don’t have to take you off to the prairies of Illinois or other places throughout the Midwest, you get a chance to learn and do things that many students in the city of Chicago quite frankly don’t have an opportunity to do,” CEO Janice Jackson told students and administrators at Al Raby High School. “With this new gift, we have the opportunity to do it in more schools.”

The funding comes from international food company Mars Food’s Seeds of Change Grant Program, and will expand the district’s Eat What You Grow initiative to 130 schools across the city. As a school garden program allowing fresh produce to be served to students in class and dining centers, Eat What You Grow launched as a pilot program in eight schools in 2013 and has gradually expanded since.

Work on expanding the program will start now and go through the 2019-2020 school year, said Caroline Sherman, vice president of corporate affairs at Mars Food North America. The grant will help provide farmers markets at two Chicago schools and create 30 summer gardening jobs for CPS high school students, she added.

In 2017, Illinois passed a bill allowing district public schools to provide school-grown produce as part of their lunch programs.

Jackson said the importance of school gardens extends beyond campus grounds in providing students education about nutrition. The correlation between students’ physical health and their academic performance, she added, underscores the importance of Eat With You Grow’s expansion.

“When we talk about equity, we focus a lot on education, buildings and facilities, but health is an equity issue as well,” Jackson said. “We need to make sure that students who live on the South and West sides have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and high-quality foods everyday.”

When students only see unhealthy foods, that becomes “all they expect to eat,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was also attended the announcement. Durbin praised Mars Food for opening up opportunities for children to be exposed to more.

Durbin said he started paying closer attention to food options in schools a few years ago and since, has visited cafeterias throughout the city. In many, he said, meals consisting of corn dogs, tater tots and soda were the norm.

“Does that sound familiar to anyone here?” Durbin asked students in attendance.

“Not anymore,” a man from the crowd shouted.