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Arizona schools doing better than most feeding kids

PHOENIX — Longer lunches, fresh fruits and time to play. Those are some of the bigger issues a U.S. Department of Agriculture official took away from his tour of Arizona public schools.

“Arizona is doing an excellent job,” Kevin Concannon said, “especially with the early morning program allowing children to eat breakfast as classes get started.”

Concannon, under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, had breakfast Wednesday with students at Maryland School in downtown Phoenix. Many schools across the country don’t offer breakfast, he said.

“The number of students who have breakfast here is at least three-quarters,” he said. The school is part of the Washington Elementary School District, the largest district in the state. Comparing that rate to public schools across the country, “the national average is just about half.”

Concannon met with the nutritional experts feeding Arizona’s schoolchildren, including Connie Parmenter, director of the district’s school nutrition services. Parment is concerned that students have less time than ever for lunch.

“On average, students get about 10 to 12 minutes to actually eat their lunch,” Parmenter said, “that’s when you factor in the time it takes to get to the cafeteria, stand in line to be served, then find a seat.”

That’s just one reason why some schools in the district adopted a new approach to lunch, which caught Concannon’s attention.

“In most schools they go and eat, then they go out to play. This year are trying recess first then the students go and eat.” Where it’s in place, principals claimed students are getting five to 10 more minutes to actually enjoy their food.

Getting kids to choose fresh fruits and vegetables is normally another challenge. At Maryland Elementary, that becomes less of an issue as children grabbed hand rakes and dug elbow-deep into the rich soil along rows of raised gardening boxes.

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Kids at Maryland School in Phoenix tend to the campus garden. (KTAR Photo/Holliday Moore)

It’s moments like these, Concannon said, that are “letting kids realize food doesn’t necessarily start at the Safeway. Somebody has to grow it before it gets there.”