Monday, July 26, 2010

Sprouting Kids' Interest in Healthy Food and Food Production

Among the rows of the farmer’s “Market at the Square” of Urbana, pictures of a small chicken – a chick – peer out on shoulder-high signs. The tables near these chicks offer a variety of foods for tasting and display information for learning about foods and farming.

To a Market shopper wandering through, these tables may briefly pique their interest but are eventually passed by. However, these tables attract the kids participating in the “Sprouts at the Market” program, as well as their accompanying parents.

"Sprouts at the Market is a nutrition and farm linkage program for kids 3-8," said program coordinator and University of Illinois graduate, Jen Hewitt.  "Its goals are to teach kids about fruits and vegetables and about where food comes from.”

Notably, younger and older children often participate.

Blossoming Sprouts
“Sprouts at the Market” began as a joint project between Lisa Bralts, Economic Development Specialist/Director for Urbana’s “Market at the Square” and  Hewitt.

In 2008, Bralts was looking to develop a program at the Market that would educate children. She observed that, “apart from a few holiday-themed events, there wasn’t much around the idea of teaching kids about fruits and vegetables and nutrition or about seasonality and the farmers that grow the food at the Market.”

Hewitt approached Bralts about creating a project around nutrition as part of volunteering for her dietetics major, and, after coordinating ideas, “Sprouts at the Market” was created.

Sprouts through the Year
Sprouts activities are held once a month from May through October beginning around 9 AM.

Hewitt coordinates the Sprouts activities June through September. Her events focus on the tables around the Market at the Square that display a theme along with related food tastings and information, known as “Sprouts Facts”.

For example, the June event discussed Organic, Local, and Seasonal foods, along with the importance of Eating Here (eating foods from the farmer’s market, that is). Participating kids searched for each of four tables scattered around the Market to learn about the topics and tasted food samples ranging from green pea pods to kohlrabi, a vegetable that looks similar to a turnip.

After visiting all the tables, the kids returned to the main Sprouts tent near the Market entrance to receive a certificate of participation, as well a food seasonality chart and a coupon for a free apple courtesy of the Common Ground Co-op next door.

Bralts manages the “extra” May and October events that “introduce kids to different parts of the food system.” The activity in May this year was a seed-planting workshop.

While topics for Sprout” events have varied year to year, they always center around the importance of foods, nutrition, and farming. Past topics have included “Spring Produce” and “Meet the Farmer.”

 The remaining topics this year will be “Corn” in August, and “Fall Produce” for the month of September. For the “extra” activity in October, Bralts is partnering with the Eastern Illinois Foodbank to develop a lesson on giving and donating food.

Looking into the future, Bralts would like to plan activities such as composting food waste, opening a discussion on food distribution, and helping kids understand “food miles,” a look at how far food travels from farm to plate.

Supporting Sprouts
To support Sprouts activities, Market food vendors, volunteers, and other partners are crucial. Hewitt extols the importance of the vendors “without whom we could not hold our events.” She noted that, “we rely on (the vendors) to provide samples of foods for participants to taste, and getting kids to try new things is one of our primary goals.”

Volunteers also help run the program and are often responsible for talking about the information related to the month’s theme at each table. Although June’s event was mostly about food production and the benefits of local and seasonal foods, past events have had more information related to nutrition. Considering the volunteers are students in dietetics or nutritional sciences, they can be a wealth of information about the food and nutrition topics.

The Sprouts program has also had support from Common Ground Co-op and 88 Broadway. The Co-op provided the coupon for a free apple distributed to the kids who completed the Sprouts program for the June event.

Sprouts' Success
Participation in Sprouts has steadily grown, and it hosts a range of 30-80 children at each month’s event. This is encouraging to Hewitt, who considered the program a success.

The adults watching their kids learn appear to agree as well. Hewitt expressed that “parent surveys (about the program) have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Halfway through its third year, Sprout's is going strong and always welcomes new participants. This is a positive opportunity to learn, taste, and appreciate the foods you eat, and even try some foods you have yet to taste.

Join Sprouts
If you are interested in participating in Sprouts, the remaining events for the summer will be:
· August 21
· September 18
· October 23

For More Information
 Sprouts at the Market Blog
 Sprouts at the Market FaceBook

Contact Information
Lisa Bralts, Economic Development Specialist/Director, Urbana’s Market at the Square
· 217-384-2319
Jen Hewitt, Sprouts Program Coordinator

About the Author
Having completed a bachelor’s degree in food, nutrition, and dietetics from Illinois State University, Caitlin Huth is interested in community programs related to food and nutrition education, such as Sprouts.

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