Healthier kids for a healthier community

Getting children excited about consuming unfamiliar healthy foods in school lunch can sometimes be a challenge. For one district in Mississippi, exposing children to new foods and changing palates starts with some of the youngest students doing taste tests and sharing feedback on new menu items.

The Tupelo Public School District has an initiative called “Growing Healthy Waves” in partnership with FoodCorps. A goal of the program is to get students from Pre-K to 6th grade involved in gardening, trying new foods and making connections with locally-sourced fruits and vegetables.  

Donna Loden of Growing Healthy Waves says getting kids excited for healthy eating is all about introducing them to foods they may not get at home. Working with local organic farm, Native Son Farm, a monthly taste test is held for kindergarten through second grade students – most recently they tried kale.

“We made a kale salad, and the kids voted after trying the sample,” said Nicole Dikon, FoodCorps service member. “The choices are: liked it, tried it, or loved it.”

“Students have to use words other than yuck if they don’t like something. We tell the students they need to be respectful of each other, they are not allowed to yuck our yum,” according to Donna Loden.

School nutrition staff members offer cooking and tasting tips and provide cups, trays and utensils for each Harvest of the Month. After a taste test is done, recipes are sent home with the students in an effort to bring more vegetables into their homes.

“We are hoping to make a connection when that child goes to the grocery store with his or her parents and they see the kale, they ask their parents to buy it,” said Donna Loden.

The taste tests are just the beginning of the introduction of healthy foods. FoodCorps also works with Tupelo’s alternative school program for students in grades 6 through 12. In February, a local nursery provides the program with seeds, soil and trays. Using a greenhouse, the students start growing summer vegetables for the nursery. 

“They learn how to germinate the seeds, watch them grow and then the sale of the vegetables will go back to the school,” said Nicole Dikon. “Mississippi is an agriculture state, we are teaching these kids skills to go into the workforce.”

Some of the fruits and vegetables grown by students also go into the school cafeterias. While the gardens don’t provide enough watermelon and kale for every student, support from local farms supplements what is needed to have those foods served at lunch. 

Before the pandemic, two schools in Tupelo were able to obtain salad bars through a grant. Through Growing Healthy Waves, students were taught about salad bar etiquette, such as how to use the tongs, how to portion the food they would eat on their plates, the importance of the sneeze guard. Working with the school nutrition director, they were able to fill the salad bars with fresh vegetables from the local organic farm. 

“It was amazing, I had one little girl tell me she loved eating cucumbers after trying them on the salad bar,” said Donna Loden.  They hope to be able to reopen the salad bars soon. In the meantime though, they’re planning to taste test a fall or winter vegetable, maybe radishes and pomegranates!

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