BENNINGTON -- Among new federal school lunch guidelines imposed on cafeterias across the country is the mandatory condition that a piece of fruit be served with every lunch.
In some schools, students regrettably place the fruit on their tray until they make their way past a trash bin, where they nonchalantly give it a toss. But local schools in Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and their food service provider, The Abbey Group, have set up return bins in every cafeteria where students can give fruit away so it may be eaten by someone who does want it.
"They're mandated to take the fruit every day, but, you know, trying to get the kids to eat it is a different thing," said Maureen O'Neil, director of The Abbey Group. "So the give-back buckets are there for the kids that are not going to eat it."
While there are a lot of students who choose not to eat the fruit at each grade level in all of the schools, O'Neil said there are even more who want the returned fruit. "There's hungry kids," she said.
In the elementary schools the fruit are generally taken from the bin at the end of each lunch period, washed, and then included into school snack programs where students may eat take them the next day for free.
Unlike breakfast and lunch programs in which children who come from low-income homes qualify for free meals, the snack programs elementary schools have charge everyone the same price.
"Other kids are coming down for snack and the kids that don't have the money can't get anything. So now, first of all they're getting fed if they're hungry, and they don't feel as ostracized," O'Neil said.
In Bennington's three elementary schools alone, the poverty rate is about 70 percent.
"The kids just love it because there's a lot of them that (qualify for) free and reduced (meals) and they can't afford to bring in snacks," said Stephanie Gates, assistant director of The Abbey Group.
Once a piece of fruit is returned it belongs to the school and each school handles what they do with the returned food a little differently.
In addition to snacks, the returned fruits are also offered during afterschool programs, or sometimes they are grabbed during the same lunch period soon after it leaves one student's hand and hits the bottom of the bucket.
"Fruit is good. Every day I get a second piece," said Mount Anthony Union Middle School seventh grader Ashlee Bilert during lunch Thursday.
The fruit available to students varies, although apples from Southern Vermont Orchards in Bennington have been a constant for the first two months of school. On Thursday, students also had the option of a banana or pear, which some students said was good because they are getting sick of apples.
Some students said even with the options they did not feel like eating their piece of fruit Thursday, but most took advantage of the return bucket knowing that others would eat it.
"I'm not a fan of fruits that much, but we have to take them," seventh grader Lyle Sanders said after placing his apple in the bucket.
Classmate Tyler Onorato also returned his apple. "It's always apples every day. If I'm super hungry I may take something, but they don't really fill me," he said. Sitting across from him, Brett LaPointe said he always returns the fruit unless an option is kiwi. Others around LaPointe then chimed in agreeing that they never return the kiwi.
On another side of the cafeteria, a table of girls Bilert was sitting with said they love the fruit and often grab a second piece someone else chose not to eat. Sitting at that table was seventh grader Samantha Nieves, who said she loves the idea of the return bins.
"I think it's a good thing. Instead of throwing it away and wasting it, they give it back," Nieves said.
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