That’s how Torria Baker, Director of the Early Learning Center described it. Torria first met Nancy three years ago, while trying to find a way to help her pre-K students develop healthy eating habits.
“We noticed that a lot of our kids weren’t eating the fruits and vegetables in the lunches we were providing,” Torria recalls. “We’d also see a lot of them come into school eating popsicles or donuts for breakfast.”
Torria’s observations reflect a growing trend seen in classrooms across the US. A recent study by the CDC found that just 40% of children in the US eat enough fruit in their diet -- and only 7% eat enough vegetables. The health crisis is especially bad among low-income families who often can’t afford healthy food options, have limited time to prepare meals, or have limited access to grocery stores.
But at United Community’s food pantry, Nancy says she’s noticed another reason why kids may not be eating healthy: education
A former 4-H club instructor with a master’s degree in food nutrition, Nancy grew up on a dairy farm near South Bend, Indiana, where her life was tied to the land, year-round.
“As a farm kid, I knew how everything grew and how it was harvested,” Nancy remembers. “Farming and food preparation was part of who I was. It wasn’t until I moved to the suburbs that I realized that not everyone was so lucky.”
Working with Torria and the Early Learning Center staff, Nancy designed and started a monthly “Apples to Zucchini Food Education program” for the Center’s Pre-K classes. The program’s goal is to help kids learn more about where food comes from, get excited about healthy eating habits, and – hopefully – encourage their parents to eat healthy, too.
“An Onion?” a young girl guesses.
“Nope. It kind of looks like an onion, doesn’t it? Anyone else?”
“A Pomegranate!” another young boy chimes in.
“That’s right! It’s a pomegranate! And both pears and pomegranates grow how? Do you remember?”
“On a tree!” the whole class answers excitedly.
The pomegranate soon makes its way around the classroom, passing from one pair of tiny hands to the next, as Nancy holds up a picture of a pomegranate tree and explains how the fruit grows from a flower. Next, the students huddle around a big pot full of water, as she shows the class how to remove the “averils” (pomegranate seeds) from the hefty fruit.
“Ms. Nancy, they love them,” exclaims Pre-K Instructor, Ms. Pacita. One by one, the children ask for seconds – even thirds. Fortunately, Nancy has brought plenty of extras.
“I love when the kids can take fruits and vegetables home with them so they can try it out. That way their mothers can see them eating it and know that they like it.”
“As a mother, I know how hard it can be – giving your children popsicles or pop-tarts is easy. But I want to make fruits and vegetables easy too! If I can help families gain the confidence and exposure to healthy eating that they need, I feel like I can make a difference.”
“Our teachers have really gotten behind this program,” Torria says. “Even though Ms. Nancy only visits us once a month, our Pre-K teachers work hard to reinforce the learning experience throughout the month by incorporating the fruit or vegetable into their curriculum – reading books and singing songs about apples, bananas or whatever produce Ms. Nancy will be bringing next. Both the teachers and the children really look forward to her visits.”
“Broccoli,” one kid shouts excitedly!
“You know that’s funny,” responds Nancy. “The kids in the other class asked for broccoli too! Broccoli it is, then!”
Surprisingly, broccoli is not the only green vegetable the children have asked for. The 4- and 5-year-old audience has requested green beans, squash – even brussel sprouts.
“When one kid asked for brussel sprouts, I really didn’t know what to think,” Nancy recalls. “I was like ‘well, I guess I’ll be taking lots of leftovers home’. But when I got there, the children gobbled up the brussel sprouts like chips! By the time I left, the whole class was asking for more!”
“The transformation that Nancy has brought to our program has been wonderful,” Torria adds. “I never would have imagined our kids eating brussel sprouts when I came here – much less asking for them! Thanks to Nancy, food education has become one of the highlights of our Pre-K program.”