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Preschool gardeners cultivate taste for veggies
Preschoolers planting seedlings at Florence Crittenton Early Childhood Education CenterBy Jan Stapleman | Office of Communications

On a sunny day in late May, outside a classroom at the Florence Crittenton Early Childhood Education Center, tiny hands packed dirt around wobbly seedlings. “Yay!” a tot named Luis exclaimed, thrusting his arms in the air like miniature goal posts. With a little help from a teacher, he had just moored a pint-sized pepper plant upright in the small garden.

For Luis and his fellow preschoolers, what could be more fun than playing outside in the dirt? For the teachers and other staff members hovering above and assisting at ground level, what better way to get little ones connected with fresh veggies and fruits than to get them involved in planting, nurturing, harvesting and tasting?

The Florence Crittenton Early Childhood Education Center is one of 15 Colorado child care centers and homes participating in Colorado’s Cooking up Healthy Options with Plants program this season. The home-grown program’s goal is to get kids in child care eating more seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables and on-site garden produce. Funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Team Nutrition Training grant, the program known as CHOP features a nutrition education curriculum; taste-testing fun; staff culinary training; and webinars on gardening, culinary skills and even preparing a subgrant application.

Tanya O’Connor, grant specialist and nutrition consultant at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, is the mastermind behind CHOP, which she created by mixing ingredients from several sources. For the nutrition education component, she stirred together “Grow It, Try It, Like It” from USDA Team Nutrition and “Harvest for Healthy Kids,” a nonprofit program that began as a collaboration among several agencies in Oregon. For on-site culinary training, she drew from training developed at the department in 2014 and contracted with LiveWell Colorado to deliver it. For gardening advice, she recruited local master gardeners, who volunteer their time. And for recipes and cooking advice, she introduced a secret ingredient: Brittany Martens, Team Nutrition Grant educator, who joined the department in 2016.

“We were so fortunate to find Britt,” O’Connor said. “She’s a chef, and she produces many of the monthly webinars on culinary skills.”

The webinars demonstrate such skills as artfully cutting up a whole pineapple or chopping carrots into various shapes. They provide recipes, and guidance on following them successfully, and also teach food safety. A webinar by a master gardener offers gardening tips.

As vegetables emerge and ripen, the preschoolers are ushered into harvesting and tasting mode. At Florence Crittenton, the end of each week brings Friday Try Day, when children taste-test the fruits (and veggies) of their labor. Brave tasters, and even those who are reluctant, receive “Try It Monster” stickers. Meanwhile, cooks at the school are incorporating the fresh produce into lunchtime meals, using skills they learned from on-site training.

Elyse Adlen, director of the Early Childhood Education Center, praised the program’s curriculum as straightforward and easy to follow.

“The kids have had a great time,” she said. “And the teachers are really enjoying the curriculum.”

CHOP incorporates many evidence-based strategies for getting kids to eat veggies:

• Introducing veggies early ― by starting in day care centers.
• Using peer pressure ― through group taste-testing activities.
• Making veggies fun, and rewarding good behavior ― with Try It Monster stickers on Friday Try Days.
• Getting kids involved ― in planting, watering and harvesting.
• Setting a good example ― with participation from teachers, cooks and parents.

Adlen said CHOP also is exposing the preschoolers’ moms to fresh produce they may not have tried before. Because the moms are next door attending Florence Crittenton High School, they’re able to join their kids for lunch occasionally.

Preschool teacher Tyler Tresch agreed. He said sometimes moms who are reluctant to try certain vegetables are persuaded by their child’s enthusiasm.

“The best part is bringing it back to moms,” he said. ”They’re eating foods that may be different from what they eat at home.”

The fact that CHOP is getting little ones to eat veggies is no small success. Motivating moms to carry over those healthy habits at home may be a bonus win.

Florence Crittenton Services educates, prepares and empowers teen mothers and their children. It is a family resource center for teen families with a Denver Public Schools high school for pregnant and parenting teen mothers, an early childhood education center for the children of mothers attending the high school, the school-based Alethia E. Morgan, M.D. Health Center, and wrap-around social-emotional support services.