GREENVILLE, SC — Skyrocketing childhood obesity rates prompted the Children’s Hospital of Greenville Health System, Clemson University and more than 10 community partners and volunteers to launch a one-of-a-kind food intervention program that gave preschoolers’ families weekly recipe bags and asked that families cook the food together as “homework.”
Children ate it up.
Now, the more than 180 children and their families who participated in the program at the North Franklin Road Head Start Center, along with scores of community partners, will celebrate the pilot’s successful first year. In addition, the program will celebrate a $50,000 donation from the TD Charitable Foundation that will allow the program to expand.
The Choosy Farm to Belly project, an innovative 30-week program finishing its first year at the North Franklin Road Head Start Center, was designed to educate and encourage healthy eating habits in children as young as three years of age by introducing children to fresh vegetables and fruits – not only by taste but by learning how to cook at home with their families. Nutritionist-modified family recipe kits, including fresh local produce, were provided at no cost every other week for 30 weeks. Each child received a weekly recipe bag, with the homework assignment to prepare and enjoy a healthy meal with the assistance of their parents.
The project also encouraged the preschoolers to engage in active play as part of every-day classroom learning through games and fun motivating music emphasizing healthy messages. Choosy stands for “Choose Healthy Options Often & Start Young.”
“Parents and caregivers are hungry for ideas on how to affordably help themselves and their children, not only nutritionally but with activities that keep them moving,” said Kerry McKenzie, obesity prevention coordinator at the children’s advocacy office of the GHS Children’s Hospital. “Research shows that preferences for food, physical activity, and health habits are ‘learned’ from others early in life. Our hope is that this program, by reaching these children at such a young age, has a lifelong effect on the way families play but also shop, choose and eat food.”
Every other week of the program, the produce from the previous week was available at an open market where the children could “pretend shop” using Choosy tokens with their parents during drop-off or after-school pick-up. In addition, the students planted and helped manage raised bed vegetable gardens as part of the curriculum with members of the surrounding community.
“For families without ready access to transportation, living in an area without a grocery store is the same as living in a food desert,” said Porsha Houston, manager of the North Franklin Road Head Start Center. “For some of these children, this year has been the first time they’ve ever tasted eggplant or fresh corn, much less had the fun of cooking it with family or picking it straight from the garden. By working with these children so early, we teach them what real food is and hope to help healthier eating habits take root – what we’re doing today could literally save their lives.”
“At TD, we focus our commitments on critical issues that affect our local communities, and because of this we are proud to support the Choosy Farm to Belly program,” said David Lominack, South Carolina Market President for TD Bank, America’s Most Convenient Bank. “Given the substantial impact this program has had on the participating children and families in its first year, we are excited to partner with the Children’s Hospital at GHS to watch this initiative continue to grow and provide positive results for the Upstate.”
Said McKenzie, “Because of generous donors like TD Charitable Foundation, our goal of expanding and growing this initiative will flourish. We plan to continue Farm to Belly here at the North Franklin center but also follow these children longitudinally so that we can see what longer-term benefits occur. In addition, we will now be able to add another close-by Head Start, which will make an even larger impact in this area. Eventually we would like to expand into more Head Starts in Greenville County or even potentially go statewide by offering train-the-trainer workshops.”
“To all the partners who helped make this happen, I just want to say, from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you very much for your generosity and believing in our vision of healthy eating and healthy living,” said McKenzie.
Early findings from Clemson University, one of the key partners, found that the program has already had a substantial impact on the children and their families
Children improved in their recognition of fruits and vegetables. For example, only 50 percent could correctly identify a cucumber the first time it was offered at the market, versus nearly 90 percent correctly identifying it at a later market. Additionally, more than 70% of children were able to identify a banana as the “Choosy” (healthy) food compared to a bag of chips. Moreover, when asked, 95% of children self-identified as a Choosy kid. They gave reasons such as “I like vegetables” or “I like to sign and dance like Choosy” as their reasons for identifying as a Choosy kid.
Surveys of families also showed that more families were consistently planning, preparing and eating meals together; more children preferred fruit, vegetables and trail mix as snacks as opposed to not-so-healthy options like chips and candy; and more children were willing to try new fruits and vegetables at home.
“Most of us know that adult obesity is increasing at epidemic levels. However, what is equally alarming is the rate at which childhood obesity is also increasing,” said Sarah Griffin, PhD, associate professor in public health sciences at Clemson and the principal investigator in the evaluation phase of the project. According to the “The State of Obesity,” South Carolina ranks second in the nation for obesity among 10 to 17 year olds. “It is so important that we develop and implement effective programs to help young children and their families establish healthy eating habits and active play as their preferred choice,” she said.
FEED & SEED, an advocacy organization connecting resources to needs in the full spectrum of the farm and food sectors, was integral in pulling together the partners that made the project a reality. Additional partners included Clemson’s Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Science Department which developed the family-friendly recipes; Francis Produce which provided more than 12,400 pounds of produce; Thrive Upstate where adults with disabilities helped packed the recipe bags; Spice Society; Loaves and Fishes which helped transport the recipe bags to the Head Start center; and the community group, with help from the Hispanic Alliance and a volunteer master gardener, that helped manage the school garden.