Sprouting Healthy Kids

By Susan Leibrock
Photography by Emily Neiman

“Betsy is a fat girl’s name,” chanted Hunter Watson on our bus ride to and from third grade each day. Try as she might to ignore him, Betsy rarely succeeded. She greeted her mother at the bus stop most days with wet eyes.

The cruelty of those words and their implication for Betsy’s life pierce me to this day. Our cultural anxiety about weight has reached a fever pitch once reserved only for issues of class and race.

Thirty-second ads for diabetes-management products now threaten to outpace soft drink spots. High blood pressure and cholesterol-reduction drugs are marketed as fervently as French fries. We’re at war with our food system, and our children’s health is on the frontline.

In light of the pandemic, Sustainable Food Center (SFC) seeks to empower children and adults through projects like Sprouting Healthy Kids. Launched in fall 2007, Sprouting Healthy Kids takes some of the best elements of SFC’s programs—supporting local farms, spotlighting locally grown, seasonal produce and teaching healthy food preparation—and sculpts them to blend with a middle-school curriculum. The result is an in-class/after-school project full of fun, hands-on activities and lessons like “Planting a Recipe” and “Justice, Equality and Food: The United Soil of America.”

At the heart of the Sprouting Healthy Kids project is moving locally grown foods into school cafeterias. To help facilitate this, SFC—in conjunction with the Community Food Security Coalition—worked to incorporate a “geographic preference” into the 2007 Farm Bill. As a result, schools may now express a preference for buying and serving locally grown food.

Sprouting Healthy Kids also helps create school gardens—instrumental in increasing our children’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the food system.Companion elements accompany the project, like a gardening and cooking activity-guide for after-school clubs and TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills)-aligned healthy food lessons, and a three-day Sprouting Healthy Kids Education Institute that generates additional lessons for the core curriculum. Participating teachers receive continuing-education credits and a monetary stipend for submitting their farm-, garden- and cooking-based activities and presentations.

“We made things from the food we grew, and learned that not everything you eat needs to have meat in it,” says Jailyn Bankston, an eighth-grader and Sprouting Healthy Kids participant. “I’ve never had some of the stuff we ate, like dill and pesto.”

Improving the variety of fresh foods available, providing comprehensive nutritional information and encouraging healthy choice behavior offer children solid tools toward good health. More importantly, Sprouting Healthy Kids plants the seeds for a positive relationship with food that will bloom and grow throughout a lifetime.

SFC was awarded the congressional Victory Against Hunger Award for the Sprouting Healthy Kids project.