by Rachel Head, a FoodCorps member in Warren County, NC
From Potato Chips to Collard Chips
Recently, I planned a taste test of baked collard green chips with a group of first graders. I opened the lesson by asking if the kids liked potato chips. As you can imagine, every hand shot up as the 6-year-olds squirmed in their seats with excitement about those crispy, salty treats.
“Well today, we’re going to try something that tastes a lot like a potato chip—except it’s GREEN! And instead of coming from a potato, it comes from a collard green plant!”
We then worked together as a class to make a homemade ranch dipping sauce out of plain yogurt and dried herbs. When the time came to try our snack, there was no hesitation in the room. The kids enthusiastically chomped on the chips, and politely raised their hands for second helping. They were excited about this tasty new snack they had discovered, and proud of the deliciousness of the ranch dip they had created. One of my pickiest and most reluctant students became the class’ biggest collard green fan. He flexed his muscles and said, “I ate my collards, and I’m growing big and strong already!”
Getting Kids Excited about Eating Healthy
I am a FoodCorps service member, one of 182 people around the country who is trying to get kids excited about eating healthy foods. Studies have shown that kids who grow food, harvest it and prepare it themselves are more likely to eat it. So in our service, we not only teach kids about healthy food and where it comes from, but we make sure to engage them in hands-on cooking and gardening lessons, and we do our best to increase the availability of healthy fruits and vegetables in their daily routines.
In this role, I am constantly coming up with ways to get kids excited about growing and eating healthy food. I often end up channeling my younger self in order to get my students engaged in the discussion. What foods was I excited about when I was six?
Throwing a Radish Party
In a different class full of skeptical eaters, we threw a radish party after harvesting radishes from the garden. During the party, we talked about what the radish looked like as a seed, a baby, then a mature plant. The kids were eager and proud to boast of their crop’s life, and were even more excited to taste what they had grown.
Most of the students took one nibble of a raw radish and were disinterested, to say the least. We then brainstormed and decided to roast some of the radishes with honey and cinnamon to make “radish candies.” The radish candies were a huge hit, and the kids were back on Team Radish: proud of their crop and ready to grow and eat more.
When I think of my childhood self during my lessons, I realize I would have been my own toughest student. If a crispy green leaf had been presented to me, chances are I wouldn’t have come close to trying it unless it had first been likened to a potato chip. If I had tasted the peppery flavor of a radish as a child, I would have written it off completely and been done with radishes until further notice.
Looking Back on Myself as a Kid
I, like many children, grew up eating lots of processed foods, and not much fresh produce. My picky eating and preference for junk food made it difficult on my mother when it came time to come up with dinner for my brother and me. Often she’d resort to the foods she knew we’d eat. These foods were often unhealthy, and processed rather than whole. I didn’t have an idea of where my food came from, and eating well was not on my list of priorities.
As a result, I wasn’t the healthiest child around, and I certainly was not an advocate for trying fruits and vegetables like I am now. It took until my 20s, when I fell in love with growing and cooking food, for me to change my tune and realize the importance of caring for my health.
Of course, when I was in elementary school, the collective health of the United States was more robust than it is today – particularly among children. Obesity rates for kids have risen dramatically in the last few decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the past 30 years, obesity in children has more than doubled – and among adolescents, it’s quadrupled. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese nationwide. Here in North Carolina, 16% of children aged 2 to 5 are overweight and an equal percentage are obese. Think about that: in our state, one-third of our kids have weight problems by the time they reach their first day of school.
Thanks to the support of BCBSNC in helping to expand our work in North Carolina, FoodCorps now has 14 service members at nine different service sites across the state, delivering garden-based nutrition education to students, working to connect farmers with schools, and organizing communities around healthy school initiatives.
Still, while statistics and demographics provide context for the need to get kids eating healthier, the children I work with are usually more concerned about flavors than facts.
Learning From My Childhood Attitude
When I’m teaching, I keep my childhood attitude and preferences about food in mind so that I can remind myself what it’s like to be a typical kid. Remembering my childhood diet and attitude helps me relate to the kids on a realistic level. I was in their shoes at one point – not so long ago! – and I can think of tactics and activities that would have gotten me more excited about eating healthier foods. These very tactics are what I bring to my kids through my service: collard chips, radish candies.
I’m sure most of us can think of at least a few picky eaters and junk-food-loving kids in our lives. In your efforts to lead them into a healthy relationship with food, remember that it’s possible to get them to try new things by meeting them where they are. Liken healthy foods that they may not be familiar with to foods that they are comfortable with. Involve them in the process of growing, harvesting, and preparing food to harness the magic that happens when a child watches a seed transform into food. Most importantly, however, remember what you were like when you were a child, and interact with the children in your life in a way that would have impacted you.