(Dec. 28) Ten schools on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota have helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fruit and vegetable snack program make a difference in the lives of young Lakota Indians, according to Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

On Oct. 24-25, DiSogra visited eight of the 10 schools participating in the snack program on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She wanted to observe the second year of the snack program there.

“I wanted to see the program in action, to make sure it is working,” she said. DiSogra visited the schools with Janelle Peterson, South Dakota’s program specialist with child nutrition services.

Peterson said one anecdote from the trip illustrates how the program is working. At one Pine Ridge school, a man servicing vending machines at the school complained to a school administrator that he was putting less candy into his machines since the snack program started. Kids were taking advantage of a fruit bowl stationed near the machines instead.

“Kids are getting used to making better choices and choosing fruits and vegetables over things available in the junk food machines,” Peterson said.

Aside from the striking landscape of prairie and badlands, DiSogra said the experience of visiting Pine Ridge was a study in contrasts.

One school consisted of four trailers — one of them a kitchen — while other schools were typical of what could be found in a suburban setting, she said.

The 10 participating schools on Pine Ridge range in size from 29 students to 1,133 students.

All together, the schools serve 4,287 children. The USDA’s fruit and vegetable snack program allocates $352,464 per year for those 10 schools to fund fruit and vegetable purchases.

If the fruit and vegetable program can work in Pine Ridge, it can work anywhere, DiSogra said.

After her visit with school officials on the reservation, she said it was obvious the snack program is embraced.

“They are very proud of the program and it’s making a huge difference in the kids’ lives,” she said.

Peterson agreed kids and teachers are pleased with the program, and she said the state hopes to help Pine Ridge officials expand the availability of new produce varieties and value-added fresh fruits and vegetables in the program.

She said large foodservice operators like Sysco or U.S. Foodservice make deliveries to the reservation, and she said she is investigating whether the Department of Defense fresh produce purchasing program would benefit the participating Pine Ridge schools.

Pine Ridge occupies about 2.7 million acres of land in southwest South Dakota near Nebraska, and is roughly the size of Connecticut. It has 40,000 residents.

Peterson said it takes three hours to drive from one side of the reservation to the other.

The reservation lies within Shannon and Jackson counties in South Dakota, counties counted among the country’s poorest and beset by social ills such as alcoholism and chronic health worries such as diabetes.

A Web site sponsored by the American Indian Relief Council states that 69% of Pine Ridge residents live below the poverty line.

DiSogra said she was curious how the program was operating for the reservation’s schools.

She found that participating schools had benefited from a learning curve after their first year of participating in the program during the 2003-04 school year.

From her observations, the snack program served high quality fruits and vegetables for morning and afternoon snacks.

In addition to the snack program, the schools also have salad bars set up during school lunches. The salads bars were installed with state funding about five years ago in response to concerns about obesity among children on the reservation.

Increased fruit and vegetable consumption is one way childhood obesity is being addressed. DiSogra said about 40% of kids on the reservation are overweight or obese by 5.

DiSogra said both the snack and salad bar programs are influencing food choices among children.

“It blew me way how receptive kids were to the salad bars, and they had great quality fruits and vegetables,” he said.

One unusual produce preference on Pine Ridge, Peterson said, is that many residents there love lemons and eat them as most people eat an orange or apple.

Together, the snack program and the salad bars operating during the lunch period help improve fruit and vegetable consumption among children on the reservation by about four servings per day, DiSogra said.

DiSogra said students could eat as much as six servings a day if they consumed all the fruits and vegetables available.