A plant-based school programme is increasing children’s enthusiasm for veggies
Educators in Arlington, Virginia, increase students' enthusiasm for vegetables
Created by Real Food for Kids with a grant from VegFund, the aim of FFE is to increase the access to and eating of fresh vegetables among preschoolers, including those in low-income communities who are at risk of developing health problems due to their diets.
Real Food for Kids advocates for positive changes to school food policies. Aligning their goals with those of schools and multiple stakeholders, they’ve generated institutionalised support for increases in whole-food, plant-based school food as a critical component of children’s wellness and academic success.
Fresh Food Explorers
Partnering with an organisation called Healthy Community Action Team Arlington, Real Food for Kids developed Fresh Food Explorers.
The programme is an eight-week nutrition course piloted in 2019 at Carlin Springs Elementary School, USA, where 85 per cent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The research-based curriculum was customised for its young audience with feedback from preschool teachers.
Mary Porter, director of Programs at Real Food for Kids, said: “We’re seeing these kids at a very early age to see if we can impart some fun to this, really get them engaged in the idea of eating vegetables.”
In-class lessons engage students’ fine motor skills and senses in hands-on activities such as sorting vegetables into a rainbow arrangement. Children get to hold, smell, and taste a variety of vegetables and combine them in a finished dish, such as fresh salsa or gazpacho, that they then get to enjoy!
The lessons often highlight and explore an ingredient found in the school lunch menu for the day, sparking students’ curiosity to try a vegetable in the cafeteria line that they might otherwise skip. Furthermore, students take home simple recipes that their families can try together.
Ellen Vicens, preschool teacher commented: “The students loved when Fresh Food Explorers came every week.”
“They would get so excited to participate in the lessons, raise their hands, and contribute their ideas. The most powerful thing was for some of the more hesitant students to be influenced by their friends’ enthusiasm for vegetables and eventually try tiny nibbles for themselves. Parents said their children talked about the lessons and asked to eat the vegetables at home!”
The in-class programme began with 60 students in 2019. They completed two rounds of the course before COVID shutdowns began.
Bonnie Moore, executive director of Real Food for Kids, added: “We really wanted this programme to go on.
I always think that necessity is the mother of learning. And in preparing to go virtual, we created Mr. Broccoli, the puppet who stars in our video series. Mr. Broccoli is spectacular. He’s a very big celebrity!”
In the spring of 2021, the online learning version of the programme was made available to over 700 students enrolled in APS preschool classrooms. The online activities reinforce food literacy through professionally produced video lessons featuring Coco, a ‘vegetable enthusiast’, and beloved puppet Mr. Broccoli. Parents receive materials to support increased vegetable consumption at home, including a downloadable colouring book.
Real Food for Kids has also launched a Chef Exchange, which pairs a school nutrition professional with a chef from the restaurant industry to collaborate on appealing plant-based recipes for school food menus and family meals.
Bonnie Moore, Executive Director of Real Food for Kids said: “This unique collaboration is designed to foster innovation in school meals and share best practices from different yet aligned production industries.”
“Collaborators produce their new recipes in both large-scale (for school and restaurant kitchens) and small-scale (for school families). Engaging “harvest videos” encourage healthy plant-based cuisine in schools, restaurants, and home environments.”
Leah, Gage, programmes manager, VegFund added: “Funding programs like Fresh Food for Kids is a unique opportunity for us as a small grant-making organisation to have a big impact. It’s one example of many for institutional buy-in of plant-based foods, and it’s scalable!”