This harvest season, USApple is celebrating another successful year of growing apples by giving back to student communities across the United States and helping to teach healthy habits. We’re proud to partner again with the School Nutrition Association and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to present Apples4Ed, which will award five public schools across the United States a $4,000 grant to fund creative snacking initiatives that encourage students to build healthy, long-term habits around food.

We had the chance to catch up with Principal Lisa Suarez of St. Martin North Elementary School—the Grand Prize winner of the 2017-2018 Apples4Ed grant. St. Martin North is in Biloxi, Miss. and serves approximately 600 students in kindergarten through third grade. Depending on the month, between 70 and 80 percent of students receive free breakfast and lunch at St. Martin North.

St. Martin North StudentFirst and foremost, Dr. Suarez shares with us, St. Martin North is a loving, generous community filled with “sweet, caring, nurturing children who are good to each other.” Her devotion to her school is obvious as she shares that one in six students at St. Martin North has an Individualized Education Program, and that the school offers two life skills classes. For students receiving special education, Dr. Suarez shares how important it is to keep them here, involved with their communities, and close to home. Being able to provide additional nutritional assistance makes a huge difference for these students and their families.

“That’s the type of community we are—these kids help each other and love each other,” says Dr. Suarez.

When the Child Nutrition Program lead at St. Martin North shared the idea of applying for Apples4Ed, the school community was eager to put together a creative program that would help provide students with snacks that help them stay healthy, focused, and in the classroom with fewer absences. The grant application also proposed an educational component that teaches students how to make healthy food choices independently, positively encourage their peers, and builds on the school’s existing resources.

The grant has been used to build “Buzzy’s Bites”—a healthy snack cart featuring the school’s mascot, Buzzy the Bee. With the help of a nutrition calculator, students are able to evaluate the nutrition content of different snack foods and select a snack for themselves. Simply knowing there is extra food available on a regular basis helps.

St. Martin Students celebratingThe Apples4Ed grant has been a great way for St. Martin North to stock up on healthy staples to help students stay full through the school day and beyond. It also has been a way to expose them to new foods that many of the students hadn’t encountered before—like kiwi. While there’s always the challenge of getting some young students to try new and unfamiliar foods, they are often persuaded by a friend’s behavior, Dr. Suarez shares.

“Mississippi is one of the worst states when it comes to childhood nutrition, diabetes, and obesity,” says Dr. Suarez. The grant dollars have been a helpful way to round out the efforts already happening to instill healthy habits in its young students, and complement a new gym, and other nutritional learning they get during physical education—like learning about food pyramids, the different varieties of apples, and incorporating “Move to Learn” Brain Break sessions to release energy, which have been shown to significantly improve focus and get students moving for a few extra minutes each day.

In addition to fruits and veggies, protein-rich snacks filled with nut butters are favorites and help to balance out items that perish more quickly. Through Buzzy’s Bites and the nutrition calculator, even Kindergarten students are learning how to evaluate foods and to be wary of anything too high in sugar, fat, and sodium. Dr. Suarez shares that even the staff were surprised by snacks, like fig bars, that masquerade as healthy—but don’t deliver on the nutrition. Students are learning that when in doubt, fresh fruits and veggies are excellent choices. Since prices for fresh produce are prohibitive for many families in the St. Martin North community, many students rely on school for a source of fresh produce. “If they don’t have it, we provide it,” says Dr. Suarez.

The St. Martin North community embodies that sense of neighbors helping neighbors. When a young student shared that his family was struggling to make ends meet, school administrators restocked their pantry and fridge that evening to help out. Dr. Suarez recalls how excited the student was to find out that there was now plenty to eat at home.

When asked about the long-term lessons of community St. Martin North is instilling in its students, and what she hopes her students will take away, she is reminded of that student, and her bright hopes for his future.

“I hope he remembers that when you’re down, look around, get some help, and pay it forward when you can. Look around again and see who you can provide for. We care about each other and that’s the climate we have to promote.”

This year, we look forward to supporting more schools like St. Martin North Elementary with Apples4Ed grants. We are eager to see what creative and sustainable solutions school communities can imagine for their students and to help students thrive because of the support and dedication their communities provide.