Written by: Jen Swanstrom, FoodCorps Service Member with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) North Coast
In a nation where nine out of ten kids do not eat enough vegetables every day, I am thrilled to be serving in a position that allows me to help build enthusiasm around healthy foods instead of chips, soda, or sugary treats. It may not seem like the easiest of tasks, but through fun lessons and repeated exposure, I have seen very real excitement around trying new vegetables!
Taste tests as a gateway
December’s featured vegetable was turnips, which are not exactly a go-to. In fact, the wonderful cooks who I work with, Melanie and Sheila, had never tried them before, nor had I! I was very excited to try them and to share that excitement with the students at Wright Charter School in Santa Rosa.
We procured two varieties of baby turnips, pink Scarlet and white Tokyo varieties. I took these into classrooms as part of Harvest of the Month (HOTM) taste tests and offered raw Tokyo turnips at lunch as a cafeteria taste test. Both in classes and during lunch, I felt like a turnip champion as I extolled the health benefits of turnips. To the most uncertain kids, I tried to sell them on the fact that it can take at least 10 tries to know if you really like something and if they tried it, they could vote afterwards. Getting students to vote and really feel their voice mattered made them feel empowered about their food choices; an essential part of lasting behavior change.
In one of the 5th Grade classes I have taught in since September, a surprised student exclaimed with wide eyes: “Is this a vegetable?! It’s the best vegetable ever!” This student’s dramatic flair was enough to halt a conversation between the teacher and myself, because his enthusiasm was so palpable and infectious and it was fantastic to see how a few months of exposure to new, fresh produce items was creating such enthusiasm!
It especially pays to get kids excited from a young age. During a visit to a Kindergarten class a little boy came up to me, and noticing that the turnips looked like radishes, told me quite emphatically, “I don’t like radishes, so I don’t want to try any!” Of course I didn’t take no for an answer when it comes to trying new things, and I gave him a spiel about trying new foods and how trying is not eating. Once I handed out samples to the class and his peers were chowing down, he tentatively tried them, and I could see his eyes light up. He returned to ask for seconds and thirds! It was such a triumph to convert this former five-year-old radish-hater into a turnip-lover!
It has been immensely gratifying to see students being exposed to unusual new foods and confronting their fears within a safe environment, amongst peers, where their opinions mattered. Getting kids excited about vegetables isn’t as hard as you would think; it just takes time, enthusiasm, and effort, and we can all do more as adults to model healthy eating behavior.
If you are interested in starting Farm to School work, the HOTM program and cafeteria taste tests are viable, easy entry points, and as the taste tests have shown me, they really work! Who knew that students would get so excited about trying turnips?!
Imagine if we could inspire this willingness to try new vegetables and convert more little kids from age five across the country. How would that change our national health and kids’ relationships with food over time? It is nothing short of a food revolution, one taste test at a time.
About the Author: Jen recently re-located back to her home state of California after living in Bristol, England for many years. During graduate school she carried out fieldwork in rural parts of Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania, while also volunteering with several science and gardening projects in schools and community centers in Bristol. Through this work with under-resourced local communities and her trips to Eastern Africa, she was exposed to the lack of access to healthy and affordable food that many people face, and it inspired her to seek further opportunities to increase access to and engagement with healthy food for all communities, on a local, grassroots scale.
Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) is a California-based nonprofit that advocates for family farmers and sustainable agriculture. To learn more, please visit their website.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy. To find out more, please visit their website.