Harvest for Healthy Kids
What is the Harvest for Healthy Kids program?
It’s a community-based intervention research project with Mt. Hood Community College Head Start. The goal is to increase access to and preference for a variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown here in Oregon. There are three different components: food service changes, classroom education, and family engagement.
What inspired the program and how many kids does it serve?
MHCC Head Start reached out to me in 2010 because they had heard about farm-to-school programs and were interested in extending the concept to early care and education settings. In 2011, we received funding from Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s Healthy Food Access Initiative to develop, implement, and evaluate the program. The food service component reaches about 1,000 low-income children. Two hundred of these children are also receiving the classroom education and family engagement components. We’re interested in understanding the impact of Harvest for Healthy Kids on children’s fruit and vegetable preferences under different conditions, when they are exposed to Harvest for Healthy Kids foods in their meals only versus being exposed to the foods in their meals and through classroom activities like cooking. Last fall, we received funding from Meyer Memorial Trust to extend Harvest for Healthy Kids to the MHCC Early Head Start program, which serves low-income pregnant women and children 0-3 years.
What were some of the biggest challenges in creating this program?
I would say that one of the biggest challenges is sourcing locally grown fruits and vegetables given the vagaries of nature for an institutional foodservice program. Last year for example, sweet potatoes were available at Portland-area farmers’ markets in late fall. But they weren’t available in the institutional quantities needed for Head Start meals. It was also really difficult to find institutional quantities of locally grown carrots last April so we decided to feature carrots in October when they are more readily available. But when October came around, we still found it difficult to find enough locally grown carrots from growers who could meet the delivery needs of Head Start.
The amount of labor involved in preparing whole vegetables is also challenging. For example, before Harvest for Healthy Kids, the cooks opened bags of minimally processed carrots. Now, they’re peeling whole carrots and cutting them into chunks to roast them. The staff has had to learn new skills and some of these centers don’t have the equipment needed to prepare these whole foods easily. Dawn Barberis is the director of operations at MHCC Head Start and also runs the foodservice program. It’s only because of her flexibility and commitment that we have been able to integrate the locally grown fruits and vegetables into their program.
What is the value and importance of the food being local in this program specifically?
There are several values. One is that when fruits and vegetables are in-season and at their peak, they taste good. From a nutritional standpoint, fruits and vegetables need to taste good if we want kids to eat them. What we have found is that kids love the Harvest for Healthy Kids foods. It’s also important that children understand how food is grown. If children don’t understand how food is grown, that it grows in the Earth, then they won’t develop a value for environmental stewardship and rural communities. There’s an economic piece too. If we’re going to serve carrots, then they might as well come from Oregon. Or if we’re going to serve apples then it benefits our regional economy if they come from this area.
How does exposing kids to more fruits and vegetables influence their behavior and their health?
Fruits and vegetables are an important part of healthy eating habits which are critical in the prevention of childhood obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. We know that early food experiences influence lifelong eating habits and that the more times children are exposed to new foods, whether through taste exposures or other sensory exposures, the more likely they will be willing to try those foods and to like them. We also know that the home food environment is also a critical influence on kids’ eating behavior. That’s why we are trying to engage parents in the program through taste tests, grab bags, and recipes.
How do you convince a child to choose a vegetable over something else that is filled with sugar or fat?
You know, honestly, when fruits and vegetables taste good, kids will choose them over candy. I have seen it over and over, both in my professional and personal experiences. I think we’re doing kids a disservice by assuming that they won’t eat vegetables or they won’t eat fruits. When they are cooked and presented in ways that are appropriate for kids and they are in-season and at their peak of deliciousness, kids will eat them. But you need to make them accessible so that they become familiar with them. It’s a part of childhood development, just like learning how to read or walk. You have to start young. When they’re still at the stage when they’re putting everything in their mouths, it is a perfect time to throw some beets in front of them.
For more information and a short video about Harvest for Healthy Kids, please see this recent profile of the program from Cooking up a Story.