The obesity rate in Athens County is high, but local schools are working to fix this problem for children.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Ranking, the obesity rate in Athens matches the state average for obesity among adults at 30 percent.
However, Athens County is hoping to do better than that. Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Charles Hammer said local health officials are focusing on making “the healthy choice the easy choice.”
There are many local organizations that have set out to do just that by starting in the local schools. Rural Action saw an opportunity to create a program that would not only promote healthy eating in an easier way, but also help the local economy.
“Since 2004, Rural Action has been working to build wholesale markets for local foods as a way to increase local food production using the buying power of institutions, restaurants, schools, hospitals,” Rural Action’s director of sustainable agriculture and forestry, Tom Redfern, said in an email. “A barrier identified early on in serving schools was that they don’t have labor or personnel with the skills or time to do tasks such as preparing fresh food, cut up vegetables or washing lettuce.”
The initiative wanted students to have access to fresh, unprocessed food. Because the peak time to purchase those foods locally is during summer when schools aren’t in session, Rural Action struck up a partnership with Hocking College.
“We partnered with the Hocking College Culinary program to work with the chefs and students to process fresh product for the schools, and also provide knife skills and other training to the K-12 staff,” Redfern said.
Hocking College students process foods from local farms, which are then distributed to Athens, Federal Hocking and Alexander schools, so that students have access to fresh foods during their school’s meal times. This is beneficial to not only the students, but also the schools since they are no longer responsible for having to worry about preparing the food.
Rural Action has also found the solution to the off-season barrier.
“To overcome the seasonality, we obtained USDA Farm to School funding to purchase a blast chill freezer, allowing seasonal produce — sweet corn, green beans, carrots, broccoli, peas, etc. — to be frozen for sale to the schools during the winter,” Redfern said.
Results have already started to show. The students of the schools are learning about local produce and food, while the staff of the schools are learning interesting ways to diversify their menus. The hope is to promote access to local produce for students in a way that increases markets for local farmers, while teaching culinary skills to the students of Hocking College.