Education, Engagement And Access Are The Pillars Of Getting School Kids To Eat More Produce, Says Rutgers/Foodcorps’ Shukaitis
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 30, 2015
Rutgers is one of the Charter Members of the University Interchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference, so we were especially excited to learn that Rutgers is deeply involved with an initiative designed to boost produce consumption.
We asked Carol Bareuther, contributing editor to sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS to find out more.
Jennifer Shukaitis, MPH
Senior Program Coordinator
Department of Family and Community Health Services
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Co-host Site Supervisor
Q: Could you preview your Micro Session presentation at the New York Produce Show by telling us about FoodCorps?
A: FoodCorps is a national nonprofit that operates in 17 states and Washington, DC. The organization works by putting FoodCorps members into schools to help connect kids from preschool to 12th grade with real food.
There are three pillars of the program. One is knowledge, which is the food education piece. The second is engagement. This involves hands-on gardening and teaching kids where food comes from. Third is access to fresh food, which we do with farm-to-school programs to boost the amount of fresh healthy foods served like fruits and vegetables.
Q: How is your organization, Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, involved?
A: We are a partner with FoodCorps as a state-level host site. Until September, we had another co-host at the state level. This was the New Jersey Farm to School Network. They closed, and now the&nbhead of that program, Beth Feehan, (Editor’s Note: Beth has contributed to the Pundit here, here, and here,) is working for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program as farm-to-school program coordinator. The DOA isn’t officially a co-host yet, but we are optimistic it will go through.
We are unique in that the school lunch program in New Jersey is under the state’s Department of Agriculture. This puts us in a really good position to get more produce into schools.
Q: What is your function as a FoodCorps’ host?
A: One of our roles is to seek out community level partners within the state, such as schools or youth-oriented programs. These sites are where the FoodCorps members will work during their one-year commitment.
We currently have 12 community partners. These range, for example, from the Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark in the northern part of the state to the Salem County Career and Technical School and AtlantiCare in Atlantic City in the south.
Q: Wow, so these community sites aren’t only schools?
A: No. Like New Jersey, our service sites reflect our state’s diverse geography, culture and resources. Non-school sites include: Isles, Inc., a community development nonprofit headquartered in Trenton; the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market; and the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden.
Q: What are the ages of the FoodCorps members that teach the kids? What are their qualifications? What training do they have or receive?
A: Most are recent college graduates. Usually 19- to 22-years old. The minimum is age 18. There is one member who has college-age children. We do tend to look for people with experience. For example, a number majored in nutritional sciences or in food systems.
They either want to explore working in this field or are taking a year off. FoodCorps holds a one-week long national orientation each year in August in Portland, Oregon. We also hold a state-level orientation in October. We go more in-depth and cover state-specific topics.
Q: Could you give us some examples of responsibilities the FoodCorps members have at their assigned site?
A: Most of what they do is deliver the knowledge piece by engaging with the students. Schools are especially set up to deliver food and nutrition education in the classroom. We had one school that incorporated a recipe of the month program. One recipe they did was Borscht. The young children took part by helping to put ingredients in the pot, while the older students made the entire recipe.
Then, in history class, they learned about the history of Borscht. Sometimes it could be something simple like learning what foods provide vitamin C and how this nutrient helps us to stay healthy. FoodCorps members work 37 to 40 hours a week and only have one to three sites, so they can go in-depth and really get involved.
Q: So what is the “secret formula” FoodCorps workers use to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?
A: Exposure to normalize it for them. Studies show it takes up to 10 exposures before kids will accept a new food. That’s why we do a lot with sampling. It may be something like kohlrabi or celery root that the kids have never seen before. The FoodCorps member will sample it either by itself, or in a recipe, or with a dip — depending on the item. Then, they will work with the cafeteria staff to develop a way to include a particular fruit or vegetable on the menu.
Doing this goes a long way toward building a culture and expectation of “real food.” The norm now is for kids to think of a brownie, or a bag of chips, or something out of the vending machine when they’re hungry. FoodCorps is poised to help make produce a natural part of kids’ culture.
Q: You mentioned engagement and gardening. How do FoodCorps members accomplish this when it’s cold for much of the school year in New Jersey?
A: Hoop houses, container gardens. It doesn’t have to be a big farm.
Q: How can the produce industry help FoodCorps workers?
A: Helping them understand the access points of the industry is key. How produce gets from the field to the kitchen/plate can be the most difficult and even mysterious for some. It’s a big issue to tackle, especially for young college kids right out of school.
So, whatever produce companies and organizations can do to help them crack the code — meaning understand the supply chain and how they can get more produce into schools — would be super helpful.
Q: What is the message you would like those who attend your session or readers here to take home?
A: It’s important to understand that when kids demand something of their parents, it’s a great way for the whole family to change habits — such as increasing produce consumption. In the 1980s, we saw this when kids pressured their parents to stop smoking. It was really effective.
FoodCorps has the potential to get as big. Ingraining in kids’ minds to eat more fruits and vegetables can be a really effective way to help the whole family eat more.
We are always inspired by these efforts to educate and introduce students to fresh produce. Abstractly, it seems like a great thing to get kids introduced to new foods and to understanding, through gardening and what not, where food comes from. Having them understand things such as the nutritional contribution of different foods – this all seems wise.
But does it work? Do adults at 30 eat more produce because at seven they got to work in a school garden? Do 50-year-olds have more diverse diets because at 12, their school had a salad bar program that featured many fruits and vegetables?
The truth is that we don’t really know. This type of research costs a lot of money and takes a long time. So for the moment, we are left relying on the incredible passion of people like Jennifer Shukaitis.
Come to New York and share in the discussion and share in the passion for boosting produce consumption.
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