CINCINNATI -- Lunch at Sayler Park Elementary School took on a whole new flavor one day last week.
Student-made paper lanterns decorated the walls, traditional Indian music played on the lunchroom speakers, and curry chicken was the entrée of the day -- all to celebrate the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
But for many of Sayler Park's students, the best part was the fresh fruit served as part of the celebration. Each student got a dish with pieces of mango and papaya along with grapes and cherry tomatoes, which are grown in India, too.
The extra fruit was paid for with a grant from the Chef Ann Foundation. Cincinnati Public Schools and the Community Learning Center Institute teamed up to apply for the grant in order to expose students in six CPS schools to fruits and vegetables they might never have tried before, said Jessica Shelly, food service director at CPS. The money that the Chef Ann Foundation used for "Project Produce" grants across the country came from the Walmart Foundation.
"Normally our price point doesn't afford us the opportunity to offer fruits like mango and papaya," Shelly said. "We want them to try something new, try something different."
The fresh fruit was such a big hit at Sayler Park that a number of students asked for seconds, said Annie Bogenschutz, director of training for the Community Learning Center Institute.
When Bogenschutz announced at the end of lunch that there were extra servings if anyone wanted more, she got a reaction she wasn't expecting.
"I had to say, 'But you can't run!'" she said with a laugh later that afternoon. "Because they all started running up to the table."
More celebrations ahead
Diwali was the first of three holidays that CPS and the Community Learning Center Institute will celebrate this school year with the help of the grant money.
A Chinese New Year celebration is planned for January, and there will be a Cinco de Mayo celebration in the spring.
Every school in the district will have a special menu on each of those days, just like they all offered curry chicken for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. But only the six schools that were part of the grant will get the extra fruits and vegetables that the Chef Ann Foundation money will be used to buy:
• Academy of World Languages Elementary School
• Mount Airy School
• Mount Washington School
• Oyler School
• Roberts Paideia Academy
• Sayler Park Elementary School
All six of those schools have Resource Coordinators employed by the Community Learning Center Institute. And 100 percent of the students at all six of those schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Shelly said.
But applying for this grant had nothing to do with whether the kids are getting enough to eat, she said.
"It is just kind of a fun, interesting day," Bogenschutz said. "A different thing for lunch."
Cortez Owensby certainly seemed to be having fun. Surrounded by his fellow Sayler Park first-graders at a long lunch table, Cortez said he had tried all of the special fruits before and liked all of them.
Kaelynn Bailey said she had tried them all, too, and liked grapes the best because they were nice and juicy.
But while Cortez and Kaelynn were excited about the fruit, both 6-year-olds took a pass on the curry chicken and picked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their lunch instead.
"The chicken looked green," Kaelynn said to explain her choice.
"I thought it was going to taste gross," Cortez added.
For the record, the chicken wasn't green and it smelled pretty good.
Maybe they will feel more adventurous for Chinese New Year.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.