Elementary School, K-6, and preschool students at East Jordan Public Schools are eating more local farm-fresh fruits and vegetables thanks to “Try Days” which the Charlevoix County school is holding early each month. In order to connect nutrition with classroom learning, students also watch a series of videos featuring one-minute health tips, and vote whether they “tried it”, “liked it” or “loved it”. The Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a resource for the school, shared “Harvest of the Month” literature with kids interested in taking recipes home to their families.
On Wednesday, Dec. 6, students will try local carrots from nearby Bluestem Farm. Jennifer Lewis of Wagbo Farm and Education Center, and parent volunteer at East Jordan, has been incorporating garden-related lessons with interested teachers. Early in January the students will try local parsnips. Last month the selection was roasted delicata squash. More than 250 elementary students voluntarily ate Michigan-grown winter squash for lunch. More than half of those officially “loved it”.
“Since the students loved the roasted delicata squash so much, we need to get it on the line throughout the entire month,” said Gretchen Bender, East Jordan Public Schools food service director.
School food programs provide a significant portion—in some cases up to half—of a student’s daily calories. Rural communities such as East Jordan are at a greater risk for chronic diseases related to diet, including diabetes and obesity. The 2014 “Framework for Healthy Communities in Northwest Michigan”, prepared by Networks Northwest, reports that “about a third of residents living in the region are obese (defined as having a BMI greater than 30) and another one-third are overweight”. Those conditions are even higher for those living in poverty.
“We’ve learned that getting the students to taste foods that are new to them and voting on their experience makes them more likely to take it from the tray line and actually eat it,” said Jen Schaap, local food policy specialist with the Groundwork Center. “Meeting the community members that grow it and love it, also helps them feel more invested in trying new things.”
“Try Days” are currently held in the East Jordan Elementary School, K-6 and preschools—and will soon be in the middle and high school. Here’s how it works: the kitchen staff prepares the samples; parent volunteers and students administer the tasting in the cafeteria; the school’s Student Leadership Council, made up of fifth and sixth graders, administers the voting process; students taste it and vote, then get a sticker; parent volunteers identify lessons related to what the class is already studying; teachers bring the class to the garden, or the garden lesson comes to the classroom.
“The stars just seem to be aligning for this kind of programming to happen,” said Jennifer Lewis of Martha Wagbo Farm and Education Center. “The administration (at East Jordan) is supportive, the staff members are excited, the kids are eager and ready, and the kitchen has already been ordering local food from (the local food hub) Cherry Capital Foods.”