FoodCorps service member Sarah Rubin, working with CitySprouts in Gloucester, Massachusetts, shares a first-hand report of what she and other service members are doing to help America's kids eat better.
Pickle Pioneer Day is one of several cafeteria events my FoodCorps colleagues and I have coordinated at Veterans’ and Beeman Memorial Elementary Schools this spring. During these themed, monthly celebrations, we decorate the cafeteria, prepare samples of nutritious, kid-friendly foods, and encourage the students to have a taste. As FoodCorps service members who build school gardens and coordinate nutrition education, we believe that both the garden and the cafeteria are an extension of the classroom. Certainly, over the past few months we’ve discovered that school lunch presents an array of teachable moments that can lead to healthier choices.
The overarching theme we chose for our cafeteria event series was "adventurous eating." By framing each event as an adventure, we hope to acknowledge that trying new foods requires courage and spunk. During these festivities, we like to use our imagination to transform cafeteria staff into ‘super cooks’ and students into superheroes.
An additional program objective is the involvement of students’ families in the conversation about eating well. We recognize that students’ eating habits at home may inform their willingness or reluctance to try the healthier options being introduced into school lunch, and vice versa. To this end, we create themed placemats for each event that we send home with the kids at the end of the school day. Each placemat has a cartoon image for them to color in, a simple recipe, and a section called “Cooking up Conversation,” which includes a series of questions meant to prompt mealtime communication between students and their families.
Of course, these lunchtime festivities are about more than placemats, stickers, and fun themes. Our events, at their core, are about building trust, creating a safe environment,
Change can’t happen overnight. It takes time to create an attitude shift, especially when it comes to something as emotionally charged as food. Some students still leave the veggies and whole grains on their tray untouched, instead fixing their attention on their bag of chips. But when I sit down to lunch with the kids, I see progress. I notice a few second graders sticking straws in fresh oranges to extract the juice, and some fourth graders garnishing their pizza with spinach leaves. One day, a kindergartner proudly showed me the veggies and fruits in her lunch box. “Grapes are my favorite,” she told me. And I feel relieved, because I know that these kids are not just ordinary elementary school students but superheroes in disguise. They are Pickle Pioneers and Dip Daredevils on a mission to eat food that is as exciting to their palates as it is healthy for their bodies. They just don’t know it yet.