Giving kids a taste of good health – that tastes good | Health and Fitness

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March is National Nutrition Month. The pandemic seems to have had two opposite effects on our eating habits. The more ambitious of us have either doubled down on or taken up eating healthy to help support our immune systems. The rest of us, including our kids, reached for comfort food at every opportunity because, well, during these difficult times, it felt like … comfort.

Benefit of an Early Start. Numerous studies have pointed out the importance of introducing kids to healthy foods early in life to develop eating habits that protect their physical and mental health. Other studies have shown that early and repeated exposure to healthy foods can have a beneficial impact that lasts through adulthood. However, getting kids to eat healthy, especially when we’re not necessarily providing the best example at home, can be a challenge. Then there is the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables for families already struggling financially. So a little assistance from Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers (CLCs), in collaboration with nonprofits across the city, has lent a hand. CLCs provide after-school programming, using schools as a hub to connect schools, families, neighborhoods and community organizations at 29 school sites in Lincoln.

WeCook. Research has shown that when kids are involved in preparing healthy foods, they are more likely to eat and enjoy them. With that in mind, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension division developed a curriculum called WeCook, a hands-on nutrition and exercise program to teach kids about healthy lifestyles that also engages their families. Nebraska Extension teamed up with Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln to implement WeCook clubs in several CLCs a few years back, and the popularity of the clubs where kids get to learn about healthy foods, prepare them and then eat what they’ve made has created a waiting list at each site where it is offered.

AmeriCorps. To help with the backlog, Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln enlisted AmeriCorps interns to lead some of the WeCook clubs and other nutrition efforts like working with Community Crops, a local nonprofit that supports urban horticulture. Interns receive training on all wellness programming and get a monthly allowance and expense reimbursement, as well as qualify to receive an education award that can be used to repay a qualified student loan or pay for current educational expenses or training programs at eligible institutions. For non-student AmeriCorps interns, the education award can be gifted to children and grandchildren, or used for continuing education. Because of the waiting list, Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln is looking for more AmeriCorps members to work with its wellness programs.

Harvest of the Month, another after-school program developed by the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), shows kids how delicious healthy foods can be and teaches them about the science of growing. Harvest of the Month teaches kids about nutrition by highlighting and taste-testing a monthly in-season fruit or vegetable supplied by local Nebraska farmers. Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, which oversees the program in the CLCs, enlisted Gary Fehr of Green School Farms to bring together local farmers to supply fresh produce for kids to try, many for the first time. This “Farm to School” effort gives students access to healthy, local foods as well as interactive educational opportunities to learn about vegetable gardening, healthy cooking and farming.

The success of Harvest of the Month within the CLCs has spawned a pilot program in two early childhood education settings, giving preschoolers an even earlier start on the road to developing healthy eating habits. Harvest of the Month program materials were created by NDE in partnership with Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska. The preschool program includes supplies as well as fun posters, stickers and coloring pages.

Gardens. While the pandemic created a nationwide interest and participation in home gardening, Lincoln Public Schools (LPS), the CLCs and their nonprofit partners were ahead of the trend. Through the Sustainability program, LPS supports school gardens outside the classroom at about two dozen schools. Many of the schools partner with Community Crops. Learn more about LPS gardens at lps.org/sustainability/gardens. Several CLCs also offer gardening clubs, utilizing both indoor and outdoor gardens.

With a limited growing season and weather to contend with, some CLCs and schools use Tower Gardens, a vertical, aeroponic growing system that can be used indoors to grow up to 20 vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers in less than three square feet. These gardening programs help kids learn the science of growing foods and their nutritional value by involving kids in planting, nurturing and harvesting the crops from their own school gardens.

Learn more about WeCook, the school AmeriCorps program, Harvest of the Month and gardening programs at HealthyLincoln.org, School Wellness Resources pages, and visit the LNKTV Health YouTube Channel for fun and informational videos about these programs, the CLCs and Community Crops.

Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln (HealthyLincoln.org) and LNKTV Health (LNKTVhealth.lincoln.ne.gov) bring you Health and the City, a monthly column that examines relevant community health issues and spotlights the local organizations that impact community wellness. Direct questions or comments to jpearsonanderson@healthylincoln.org.

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