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In NJ, School Trip to Grocer Offers Healthy Eating Lessons

First came fruits. Even a short lecture on Vitamin C, folic acid and potassium couldn't keep fourth-grade fingers from grabbing up orange slices.

But then came vegetables and the choruses of "Ewwwwwwwwww," as the boys and girls of Menlo Park Terrace School scampered past the mushrooms, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

The kids were on a school trip to a Wegmans grocery store.

"They're gross," 9-year-old Morgan Gradowski said as she sniffed a $999-a-pound truffle.

Gross, maybe, but mushrooms are part of a healthy diet. Teacher Beth Staab tried to reinforce her classroom lectures on good diets with the visit to Wegmans, where the students went on a two-hour walk through the four food groups.

Even an up-close look at a cow's tongue, dressed rabbit and live lobster couldn't distract Brittany Washington from the message that protein is vital, no matter how you buy it at the meat counter.

"It's important because you want to grow up healthy," the 8-year-old said.

Doctors, teachers, lawmakers — even farmers — are using all the tricks they can to get kids to cut back on treats.

One in every 10 high school students in New Jersey is overweight, according to one federal study, and only a quarter of all students ate the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables in a week.

The situation is worse in some other states. Nationwide, experts estimate about one-third of children are overweight, and a study earlier this year found about 15 percent of teens are obese.

New Jersey's Agriculture Secretary Charles Kuperus is pushing schools to adopt stricter school lunch policies, banning nearly all candy and soda and ordering grade schools to serve only juice or milk as beverages.

Legislators want to broaden junk food bans, following an example set by other states.

Farmers also want to get fresh produce to schools. Starting last month, every school lunch program in the state began getting cups of frozen blueberries, home-grown in the Garden State.

Supermarkets like the upscale Wegmans chain are offering tours to fourth-graders, hoping to teach them what makes for good eating.

Parents like Shannon Connor are so worried they are taking the fight for healthy foods to the school cafeteria. At home, the mother of two offers fresh foods with as few processed, high-fat ingredients as possible.

But her daughter, 8-year-old Megan, eats far different meals five days a week in the school cafeteria.

"Every Tuesday is chicken nugget day. There are hamburgers and if hamburger isn't offered as a main meal, it's an alternative. An alternative many days is a hot dog. A lot of starch, potatoes, rolls," Connor said. "We're setting our kids up for failure, sending them into the cafeteria."

Kids get classroom lectures on eating right and the importance of exercise, but those lessons are undermined by school menus that expect students to grab junk food over salads, fruits or other healthy choices, she said. And children barraged by the unhealthy options while in school, begin to expect them at home.

"I feel like I'm being undermined as a parent," Connor said.

Last year, Connor and eight other parents banded together to urge the Princeton Regional School Board to consider healthy options during school meals. They've also encouraged local and state officials to demand that food vendors offer fresh vegetables and lowfat meals.