One of the driving values of Highmark Health is to improve the health of our communities. To fulfill that goal, we invest in programs and partner with organizations that seek to connect, protect and advance the lives of the members of our communities. This series explores those partnerships and examines how we strive to create stronger, healthier communities together.

Parents know it can take a miracle to get their kids to eat vegetables, let alone enjoy them. But with the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, getting kids interested in vegetables is more important than ever. Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit in Delaware, is hoping to tackle that challenge one elementary school at a time.

“We partner with schools in Delaware to implement vegetable gardens on-site, at the schools,” said Lindsay Lancaster, program manager at Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids. “These programs align with the science curriculum at the schools, so we’re able to combine lessons in healthy eating with outdoor, experiential learning, while enhancing students’ knowledge of science.”

The program connects lessons in the classroom with tasks in the garden. For example, first graders learn about plant life and the structure of seeds, and are responsible for planting the vegetable seeds at the beginning of each season.

Planting the seeds of life-long healthy habits

Planting the seeds of life-long healthy habits

“We teach them they have to dig really small, shallow holes for the seeds, explaining the seed structure: that there’s a teeny-tiny plant inside of the seed that only has enough energy to grow a little bit before it needs energy from the sun,” Lancaster explained. Students from other grades learn about soil composition, water cycles, life cycles, and ecosystems, applying these lessons to the garden by preparing the soil, watering, and harvesting the crops.

Beyond the learning that goes on in the garden, Lancaster noted that the time outdoors provides another benefit.

“For a lot of the students, this may be the only green space they get to interact with, so being able to bring that to them is critical.”

One challenge of growing vegetables during the school year is that the fall and spring semesters don’t perfectly line up with the usual growing season. Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids overcomes this by planting “cool-weather, fast-growing crops” like arugula, radishes, turnips, bok choy, kale, and lettuce.

Cooking Up Healthy Eating Habits

Once harvested, the vegetables from the garden are used in the school’s cafeteria, and for in-class cooking demonstrations.

“The kids really love the cooking demos,” said Lancaster. “One of the favorites every year is ‘turnip fries,’ which are turnips cooked in light oil with a sprinkling of spices and cheese.” Students also enjoy the garden-fresh salads and veggies (sometimes aided by a dip).

Fresh turnips for the kid-friendly dish, "turnip fries."

Fresh turnips for the kid-friendly dish, “turnip fries.”

“By introducing these vegetables to kids and having them be involved in the process, we’re hoping that they adopt a taste for them, and an interest in them at an early age,” Lancaster said. Though creating healthier kids is a goal of the program, she noted, “It’s not about saying ‘this is good for you.’ We see that they get really excited about the food because they grew it.” It also helps that many of the vegetables are new to the students, so they don’t have preconceived ideas about them.

By being part of the process, students gain a greater understanding of where their food comes from. Lancaster noted that, before the program, some students lack even a basic understanding of their food’s origins.

“One student, after eating a salad, said he liked it but he ‘doesn’t usually eat things that come from the dirt,’” Lancaster said. “He didn’t realize that the vegetables he regularly eats come from farms and gardens, and not just the supermarket.”

A group of students from New Castle harvest their garden crops

A group of students from New Castle harvest their garden crops

From Classroom to Community

The goals of the program extend beyond the classroom. Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids helps schools put on community dinners, which include recipes made with vegetables from the garden.

At these community events, the schools invite community exhibitors who present interactive demonstrations and cooking lessons. Before dinner, students are encouraged to take their parents on a tour of the garden.

“We use these dinners to target topics like barriers to healthy eating at home,” Lancaster said. “We learn what those barriers are — the cost of healthy eating, picky eaters, the time constraints on busy families — and offer suggestions, solutions, and ideas to help overcome those challenges.”

At a number of these dinners, schools have provided container plants — like tomatoes, peppers and herbs — so that families can take the lessons learned in the garden and apply them at home. Lancaster said students often report back about how their plants are growing.

A Lasting Impact

When Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids works with a school, the program’s ultimate goal is to help teachers and students run the garden and continue the integrated coursework independently.

“We continue to support the schools and their gardens, but we want to get the teachers to a place where they feel comfortable managing the gardens independently year to year.”

The program supports two to three new schools per year, and has already served more than 10,000 students. Among those are countless success stories, though one in particular stands out for Lancaster.

“We had this student who became fascinated with radishes. He decided to grow his own at home in his mother’s vegetable garden — which he’d had no interest in before. He even requested radishes as a prize for being chosen ‘student of the month.’”

Along with newfound personal interests, Lancaster said the program has other long-lasting effects, including improved understanding of garden-related science concepts and — of course — healthy eating habits.

As a small operation, Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids relies on the support of the community to continue to give back. The organization accepts direct donations, and is an Amazon Smile participant. The organization also participates in Highmark’s annual Walk for a Healthy Community. You can also learn more about the organization at the Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids website.