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Cape Coral Living Magazine

Farm to School: Fresh Veggies in the Lunchroom, Ending Food Deserts, Kids Love it!

Jun 26, 2017 05:57PM ● By Kevin

Amy Ryals-Soto is preparing lunch for the babies. Today’s menu is puréed veggies and fresh fruit. Then she’ll prep a fresh meal for the toddlers, no cans or bleached flours in the recipe.

Which may not correlate to the pleasant nature of the Seedlings Academy lunchroom in Fort Myers, the youngest children calmly gobbling puréed carrots, fruits and berries, the older preschoolers munching on baked turkey or ground turkey sausage, green beans, organic noodles and orange melon, organic milk to wash things down.

But then again nutritious food just may be why the lunchroom in late morning is mellow―no processed foods laced in preservatives and sugars that research deems less healthy, that may prompt or complement a child’s mood swings, his/her inability to keep up because they’re sleepy or jumpy from the sweeteners.

Cape Coral-based Seedlings Academy and other Southwest Florida learning centers are on the fresh-food bandwagon, providing organic, frozen or fresh meals to children enrolled in their programs. Public schools are also onboard, participating in the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a project in Florida that pushes the idea of surplus farm and school garden produce and farm-style recipes circling back into school cafeterias. Florida agriculture agencies, in fact, send chefs to public schools to teach food-prep techniques and to help shape cafeteria menus.

The big picture is a national push by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, health groups and others to wean children from less nutritious foods. The old food pyramid guidelines, in fact, have been replaced with MyPlate, which is more about grains and proteins, heavy on veggies and fruits. Former First Lady Michelle Obama backed the nutrition program as part of her Let’s Move campaign. However, Trump administration officials have recently indicated some of the nutrition guidelines may be rolled back.

The fresh-food movement in Southwest Florida schools coincides with the food as medicine push at such places as Lee Health, which in some cases means prescribing plant-based or whole-food diets to those with health problems. Lee Health is Florida’s only hospital system to prescribe such diets to qualifying patients.

Photo by Craig Garrett.

Seedlings Academy started offering natural food meals in 2014 when its director purchased the Cape Coral preschool. Allie Kilburn Kaminski says fresh food seemed right, although some parents at first disagreed and bailed. Enrollment has rebounded, Kilburn Kaminski opening a second Seedlings at the former Pace Center for Girls in Fort Myers. Both preschools also provide an “organically nurturing environment,” meaning that staff members use chemical-free diapers, wipes, creams, sunscreens and bug sprays.

The humor, if it is such, is that Seedlings’ children sometimes fuss when the broccoli is gone. And parents often invite themselves for lunch, she says, smiling. “We do what you do for your own child,” Kilburn Kaminski says, her toddler daughter in a nearby highchair tossing back cut green beans like candy kisses. “The best way to go is to do what’s best for the kids.”

Watching our children get heavier in the last 30 years has prompted reductions in lunchroom sugars, starches and salts, health officials insist, and fewer heat-and-serve items, more fresh greens and fruits. Some schools have also added extra recess time to get these children out and playing, something fewer of them do than their earlier counterparts. Another countermeasure is to allow those on public assistance to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, card for food plant seeds and potted plants.

Obesity affects a range of things, including classroom focus/energy, mood swings and poor self-esteem, according to research. The greater problem is that unhealthy children morph into unhealthy adults, those parents teaching their kids it’s OK to load the shopping cart with junk food. Preschools providing healthier menus are vital for a concerned mom, says Catharina Romanski, the mother of a small boy at Fort Myers Seedlings Academy. “It has been a great experience,” she says of her child’s further introduction to fresh foods.

Amy Ryals-Soto is chef at the Seedlings Academy in Fort Myers. She uses no processed or canned foods in preparing meals for kids at the preschool. It's part of Florida's push to get fresh/organic foods in lunchrooms. Photo by Craig Garrett.

Nutritionists blame our snacking culture on a food industry that stuffs packaged goodies with preservatives. Yet the answers are as plain as the leafy stuff on store shelves, says Jennifer Hagen, a family consumer sciences agent with Lee County Extension. It’s an agricultural, sustainable living and natural resources agency with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The agency, for example, is taking gardening and culinary training to an east Fort Myers neighborhood of mostly low-income families, Hagen explains. Such areas are called food deserts, places where there are fewer fresh fruits and veggies in corner markets. Children in these food deserts will more likely consume candy, chips and sweet drinks, only because these are the only available things, Hagen and others agree. Also, better food can get expensive.

So county agents circulate in Florida, teaching and coaxing the farm-to-table/farm-to-school messages, partnering with Goodwill and state farmers to sponsor gardening and kitchen workshops to those living in food deserts, for example. Franklin Park Elementary in Fort Myers has started a food-sharing gardening partnership, as have other schools in Florida. Students at Cape Coral’s Trafalger Middle School pick veggies from the school garden for a culinary class. The school also offers certified agri-science courses to its students.

The farm-to-table movement has taken over large cities that encourage farming on vacant parcels in Chicago and Detroit, for example, produce that reaches and feeds thousands. Many urban farmers today have bright futures.

The move away from meat to plant diets is gaining energy in America, with its estimated 7.3 million vegetarians, some 23 million choosing some form of a veggie diet. Lee Health doctors last year, for example, started prescribing plant-based diets and light exercise for those with hypertension and pre-diabetic/weight problems. It was termed a lifestyle change, sometimes complemented with medicine. But the hospital’s goal is get patients off meds―entirely. Those results have been startling, administrators insist. Lee Health also introduced an integrative medicine component in Bonita of naturopathy and homeopathy treatments, a blending of Western technology and Eastern methodology. Although insurance doesn’t cover such care, those seeking a different approach to health line up at the door, says Dr. Heather Auld, the integrative medicine program’s director.

Back at Seedlings Academy in Fort Myers, the first lunch shift is ending. Like their parents might, the children pat their bellies, ready to tackle the rest of the day. There is, however, a side effect to a healthy diet of fresh veggies and fruit, says Kathy Hagmann, the school’s director―the little ones use lots of diapers. “They’re healthy, you can tell that,” she says, smiling.

Written by Craig Garrett, Group Editor-in-Chief for TOTI Media.

Yummy and Healthy Snacks

Smoothie Creations

Blend fat-free or low-fat yogurt or milk with fruit pieces and crushed ice. Use fresh, frozen, canned and/or even overripe fruit. Try bananas, berries, peaches and/or pineapple. If you freeze the fruit first, you can even skip the ice!

Delicious Dippers

Children love to dip their food. Whip up a quick dip for veggies with yogurt and seasonings such as herbs or garlic. Serve with raw vegetables such as broccoli, carrots or cauliflower. Fruit chunks go great with a yogurt and cinnamon or vanilla dip. 

Caterpillar Kabobs

Assemble chunks of melon, apple, orange and pear on skewers for a fruity kabob. For a raw veggie version, use vegetables such as zucchini, cucumber, squash, sweet peppers and tomatoes.

Personalized Pizzas

Set up a pizza-making station in the kitchen. Use whole-wheat English muffins, bagels or pita bread as the crust. Have tomato sauce, low-fat cheese and cut-up vegetables or fruits for toppings. Let children choose their own favorites. Then pop the pizzas into the oven to warm.

Fruity Peanut 'Butterfly'

Start with carrot sticks or celery for the “butterfly’s” body. Attach wings made of thinly sliced apples with peanut butter. Decorate with halved grapes or dried fruit.

Frosty Fruit

Frozen treats are bound to be popular in the very warm months. Just put fresh fruit such as melon chunks in the freezer (rinse first). Make “popsicles” by inserting sticks into peeled bananas and freezing.

Courtesy:  UF/IFAS Extension

Family Nutrition Program Sample Recipe: Cranberry Walnut Coleslaw

Serves 10, ¾ cup each serving 


  • Box grater
  • Cutting board
  • Fork
  • Large bowl
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Mixing spoon
  • Sharp knife
  • Vegetable peeler


  • 1 (1-pound) head cabbage
  • 3 medium carrots
  • 1 cup shelled walnuts
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dried cranberries


  1. Rinse cabbage and carrots. Thinly slice cabbage. Peel and grate carrots.
  2. Chop walnuts.
  3. In a large bowl, use a fork to whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, celery seed and salt. Add cabbage, carrots, walnuts and cranberries. Toss to mix well.

Courtesy:  UF/IFAS Extension