University of Maryland Extension

Greens and Greenery for Greensboro Elementary

Ashley MacLaughlin, University of Maryland Extension FSNE Educator
Ashley shows students how to harvest from the school’s garden plots.
Image Credit: 
Laura Wormuth

When it comes to getting kids to try new foods, hesitation and even complete aversion can be the reaction we get from little ones. But Ashley McLaughlin, a University of Maryland Extension project leader and educator in Caroline County, sees Greensboro Elementary schoolers trying new things every month, introducing even the most picky eaters to new, local foods.

Her trick is to engage students in healthy eating habits through fun activities, children's books, and involving them in their own school gardening project to teach them where food comes from and how they can produce it for themselves.

Each month, Ashley visits schools in her county to teach youth about nutritious foods and how to make healthy choices in the cafeteria and at home, as part of the University of Maryland Extension Food Supplement Nutrition Education (FSNE) program.

"During each lesson, I bring a tasting of a fruit or vegetable for them to try and in almost every class, a child tells me they are trying that food for the first time," said Ashley. "They learn about farm to table, gardening, and how to choose a well-balanced meal with all the food groups."

Greensboro Elementary has embraced a FSNE program — the Healthy School Communities Initiative — working with the Caroline County Extension educators to plant school gardens outside of the classrooms where the kids can experience sowing and harvesting their own food including beans, tomatoes and radishes, learning about where their food comes from, and why eating fruits and vegetables is important. This is accompanied by the monthly lesson including a tasting of a local food inside the classroom, Ashley said.

"The program is flexible and Ashley incorporates reading, writing and math into the lessons," said Bonnie Lease, a Greensboro kindergarten teacher who initiated bringing the program and the garden to the elementary school. "She supplies a variety of foods for the students to taste, but my favorite part of the program is that Ashley teaches and encourages the students to be open-minded and risk-takers."

FSNE programs, developed to support Maryland's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) households, reach students, teachers and parents in low income school communities where 50 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The goal of the Healthy School Community Initiative, Ashley says, is to "integrate key nutrition messages into the school curriculum, contribute to health-promoting school policies, offer trainings on the way healthy food can be served in the lunchroom, and family outreach to encourage healthy behaviour change in the home environment."

Children spend almost half of their day in school and eat at least half of their daily intake of calories there, making it an ideal environment to include lessons on nutrition and healthy choices. Greensboro Elementary is one of 75 schools that received multi-level SNAP-Ed interventions in Maryland last year, and more than 18,000 youth were reached through face-to-face education, according to FSNE's annual report.

In the classroom, the kindergarteners are eager to answer questions after Ashley reads them a children's book about farming, and share their own experiences. She produces a tote bag, heavy with mystery, and begins describing the day's tasting, giving the kids a chance to guess what she is hiding inside the bag.

"It's green, and round," she tells them, "and red on the inside."

"Oh oh oh!" excited hands go up in the air and a hushed murmur goes through the classroom. "Watermelon!"

"The students look forward to seeing Ashley and what mystery fruit or vegetable she is going to present," said Bonnie. "They love learning the importance of foods and how they affect their body. I see this carry over in the cafeteria on a daily basis — 'Miss Ashley gave us cucumbers. They have lots of water.' 'I'm thirsty, I'll get cucumbers too.'"

Tastings are paired with a lesson in safe food handling, and the students are given hand sanitizer to be sure they're clean before touching the food. They are encouraged to share their new experience with their families at home as well, and are given a sticker to let parents know they've tried a new food that day.

Four out of five youth reported that they feel confident in their ability to prepare healthy options at home and make nutritious choices when dining out, after receiving programming through the Healthy School Communities Initiative. According to the Center for Disease Control, Maryland has the 13th highest youth obesity rate with 11 percent of youth ranked as obese (https://go.umd.edu/UTp), and these types of statistics highlight the importance of introducing nutrition education at a young age, empowering youth and their families to make healthy decisions regarding food and physical activity, at school and at home.

"I love the program and what it has done for our Kindergarten community," said Bonnie. "The FSNE program has helped to make the students and adults more aware of healthy choices."

With approximately 1,000 teachers trained across the state, it's also not surprising that nine out of ten teachers document talking about the importance of physical activity with their students, and 44 percent use healthy foods as examples in lessons, according to the report.

FSNE programs are not only limited to in-school activities. Any program designed for low-income youth can be eligible for FSNE, says Ashley who also works with her county Parks and Recreation department, after school and summer camp programs. They also cover the range of ages and groups with five different teaching initiatives including Healthy School Communities, Healthy Tots/Healthy Families, Securing Food Resources for Families, Healthy Changes for Out of School Youth, and Farm to Family.

All of these programs focus on FSNE's mission to promote healthy environments and practices at school and at home, and to affect individual behavior change. "We do recipe preparation and cooking classes with children and their parents," Ashley says. "I love showing them how easy and delicious healthy eating can be!"

"Students find the recipes empowering," Bonnie said. "It is definitely a springboard for future conversations. They are eager let me know when they see the foods in the supermarket or if their parents buy them."

With school in session, now is the time for teachers and schools to reach out to local Extension agencies and find out how they can participate in these unique educational experiences. A list of agencies in each county can be found at http://extension.umd.edu/locations. For schools that don't meet the requirements for FSNE programs, other options are available through Extension, including the Master Gardeners program which can assist in building school garden plots.

"I wasn't sure how the garden was going to be received by the students. I knew they would be excited about the tools, planting, watering and weeding, but I was concerned with the harvesting, tasting and how this was going to fit in our busy school schedule," Bonnie said. "I worried for nothing. The students kept journals of the garden's progress and couldn't wait to see the weekly changes and growth. They read books, asked questions and made growth charts. When it came time to taste the produce — every child participated. They were proud to share with the principal, Ms. Swann. 'Taste it, we grew the spinach, beans and radishes in our garden,' they told her. 'We took care of the plants when they were seeds and now look what they grew!'"

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