OREGON CITY - Most of Hanne Baker's third-grade students at Mt. Pleasant Elementary had never eaten a kiwi, much less a Brussels sprout. And, they might never have, if it weren't for the Oregon Family Nutrition Program, run by the Clackamas County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service.
The students were shocked to discover they liked these new foods, said Juleeanna Andreoni, who directs the program.
Andreoni not only makes food fun by letting kids sample new tastes, she and her staff focus on providing a positive message about nutrition.
"No 'shoulds' or 'oughts,'" she said. "The program empowers students to make their own healthy choices. We bring nutrition to life."
Andreoni and her colleagues work hard to get the school kids to bring home the message that a balanced diet should include at least five to nine portions of fruits and vegetables each day. They use the motto, "Five to Nine a Day, the Color Way."
Using a simple color code system, the OSU Extension program encourages fun by letting kids sample new foods, all the while providing a positive message about nutrition. The kids are encouraged to eat a diverse array of colors, when choosing foods.
The OSU Extension's Oregon Family Nutrition Program is designed to educate low-income families on how to create healthier meals with a limited food budget. It targets school-age children, serving schools that meet the criteria of 50 percent of the population taking part in the Free and Reduced Lunch program.
While the program is only able to serve high-need areas in Clackamas County, including Milwaukie, Gladstone, Molalla and Estacada, it runs in eight Clackamas County schools and one of two Head Start programs.
The program can also provide benefits for children from higher-income families living in more urban areas like Lake Oswego and West Linn, she said.
"Many Oregon kids often skip breakfast, which has been linked to poor academic performance," Andreoni said. "There is no difference between the quality of nutrition decisions between wealthy or poor. There are lots of kids in need that aren't receiving this education."
Getting in the classroom is only the first hurdle for the program.
Making healthy choices the easy choice is a much bigger obstacle in today's society, she said. "Junk" food is much more readily visible and available to young people than healthy food like fresh produce. And exercise has decreased over time - most kids rely on riding in an automobile, rather than bicycles or walking to get around.
"Our environment doesn't support healthy eating or physical activity," said Andreoni.
In addition to emphasizing a healthy relationship with food, the Clackamas County Extension program also tries to encourage children in a supportive way to have more physical activity and a positive body image.
"We never focus on weight, always on behavior," said Andreoni. "Learning to make healthy choices is critically important both physically and mentally."
Andreoni sees encouraging signs that the Oregon Family Nutrition Program is truly changing students' behavior. Baker's third-grade students at Mt. Pleasant have started to bring fruit for snacks instead of candy and are asking her if certain treats are healthy.