(Funded in part by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation)
Snack time in elementary school may have once been a break from the day’s lesson, but now it’s part of it in the Urbana School District.
Christy Crouch teaches kindergarten at Thomas Paine Elementary School in Urbana. During a visit to the class, her students prepared to bravely go where some of them have never gone before - snack time with a plum.
“We’re going to try something that maybe some of you have had, but maybe some of you haven’t,” Crouch tells her students. "I’m going to show you what it is and I’m going to tell you its name. We are going to have something called a red…”
The class responds: “Plum!”
Twice a week, students at Thomas Paine try a different kind of fruit or vegetable, and then have a discussion about it, as part of an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Schools are chosen for the program based on the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches.
Ms. Crouch's students look on as she points to a poster labeled ‘We Predict.’ She instructs her students to make educated guesses about the makeup of a red plum – is it sweet or sour, or does it have seeds or is it seedless?
By the end of the discussion, most of the students correctly predict that a red plum is sweet, but they are nearly split on whether or not it has seeds. Then comes the moment of the truth....the taste test…
“So, when you actually tried your plum, was it sweet or sour?” Crouch asked her class.
“Sweet and sour!” responds the class.
“So, it was sweet and a little bit sour,” Crouch said. “Did it end up having a seed?
“Yes!” the kids say.
In another part of the building, fourth grade teacher Brianna Garrett introduces a plum to her students, but it seems to be less of a surprise to them. Garrett said she tries to come up with different ways to expand nutrition education in the classroom.
“For my older kids, I’m really trying to promote more of a healthy lifestyle more or less than just having a snack,” Garrett said.
Garrett, who also teaches physical education, said she likes to emphasize the importance of exercise through different games and activities.
“I separated my class into six groups for the different groups of the food pyramid. In the middle of the gym, I had note cards scattered all over that had different foods,” Garrett explained. “I did a different physical activity. You either had to run, hop to the middle of the gym, pick up a card that matched your food groups. So, if you were grains and you got a cereal card, you could run it back to your team.”
Thomas Paine’s Principal, Sandra Cooper, said exposing kids to many different types of healthy foods at a young age can have a profound impact on them later in life.
“We have to start now where it becomes just part of their life,” Cooper said. “Just like we teach them to say please and thank you, it’s just part of their life and they know what is good for them versus making unhealthy choices.”
The Urbana School District has made subtle changes to the school lunch menu – more chicken wraps, salads, and fresh fruit. It is not yet clear how that is going over with students, but school officials say they hope the fruits and veggies program encourages kids to eat what is on their plate, rather than tossing out food that is good for them.
In the school cafeteria at Thomas Paine Elementary, a group of fourth graders sit together during lunchtime. Chris Cross is 5’2 and roughly 145 pounds. He eats two hamburgers and pours syrup all over his eggs. He said he needs to lose weight, especially if he wants to one day become a professional basketball player.
“I want the Heats to draft me, and then I’m going to switch to the Lakers,” Cross said. “I’m not retiring until I’m 70 years old.”
Cross, who acknowledges that he is overweight, said he is going on a diet to get in better shape for his sports activities.
“I’m afraid of getting symptoms, like diabetes and stuff like that,” he said. “Most of the things I like are sugary snacks. I can have like second servings, but I have to watch if it’s healthy or not.”
Cross said the food changes at Thomas Paine Elementary - both in the classroom and in the cafeteria - should help him make the changes he said he needs to make. Educators in Urbana have noticed students are also talking more about healthy eating at home. One such student is Chris Cross’ friend, Nick Probst.
“My dad is eating healthier, and I know that I’m going to be like him if I keep on eating this junk,” Probst said. “So, I just want to thank him for reminding me about that and I hope he stays on his diet.”
Jill McPike helps coordinate the fruits and veggies program at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Urbana. Twice a year, she surveys parents of King students to determine how well the program is working.
“One family started eating kiwi because the student had it here,” McPike said. “I’ve also had a parent who has said their child is more interested in looking at the fruits and vegetables when they go shopping. That comes back to us, telling us that the program is working.”
“I’ve been in education now for 20-plus years, and I guess thinking back I don’t think I really felt like it was the school’s responsibility to be teaching kids these kinds of things,” said Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, the principal at King Elementary. “As a classroom teacher, we always taught about the four food groups, and you taught the children the food pyramid. You gave them basic nutrition information, but not to the level of what we’re doing today.”
Ivory-Tatum’s school has taken a slightly different approach to the fruits and veggies grant by tying lessons to the calendar. For example, each day in April, in conjunction with the Illinois Marathon, students tried a different healthy snack designed to boost energy for things like biking and running.
“People have to go the extra mile to put those values in kids early because if we can do it when they’re in elementary then hopefully it will carry with them as they get older and go to middle school and high school and when they have their own families,” she said.
That is a projection that could make an eggplant, honeydew, or a red juicy plum less of a mystery even to a hungry grade school student.