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Harvesting health

Farm to School program flourishes in Kodiak
Kimberly Slade became a convert to the Farm to School program not be­cause she is a Providence health and wellness program coordinator, but because her son Micah announced he liked turnips.
“We had just got here and he started school and they were growing vegetables at his school,” said Slade, who works for Providence Health & Services Alaska’s Healthy Tomorrows program in Kodiak. “He saw all of his friends harvesting these things and eating them, and now he’s all about turnips.”
That is exactly the type of reaction Kodiak Island School District well­ness coordinator Lucy Murdock is hoping to elicit from children. With grants in 2012 from both the Alaska Legislature and Healthy Tomorrows, she was able to expand or help plan four elementary-school Farm to School gardens across Kodiak. The gardens not only teach children how to plant and tend their vegetables but also learn about science, math and health.
As Peterson Elementary teacher Chris Hicks said of the bounty of peas his class harvested: “In fact, I could not keep the kids from eating them during the fall harvest. I had math lessons to do with the har­vested peas before the potluck, and they were eating the props! It was quite funny.”
The Farm to School initiative is one of dozens of programs supported in 2012 by Providence Health & Services Alaska. It is the type of pro­gram the Sisters of Providence saw as empowering people. By learning about how to grow food, children can sustain themselves. By becom­ing familiar with locally grown food, they can make better eating choices.
“The harvest parties were the most exciting part,” Murdock said of the early-September harvesting of the vegetables grown over the summer. “They had lettuce, carrots, radishes and things they could actually touch, hold and eat.”
At some schools, teachers would set up taste-testing tables during lunch so the kids could eat their own, lo­cally grown carrots. At other schools, they transformed dark-ruddy green kale plants into smoothies and kale chips.
The results seem favorable all around. Of the four schools tak­ing part – Peterson, Main, East and North Star – all of the kids are looking forward to planting season again.
It’s a lot of work, Murdock said, but the long-term health benefits, as well as the teachable moments, are unending.
“What we’re hearing is that if we closed down the school garden it’s not going to be a relief; people are going to be upset,” she said. “We’ve been able to see kids change their eating patterns.”
In just one year, Murdock said, kids have begun to choose Swiss chard and kale chips over Swiss cheese and potato chips – not because they’re told to, but because they want to.
“My goal is to really try to change be­havior at the ground level,” she said. “When kids have access to locally grown food that’s not processed, that’s really going to help lessen obesity and keep them healthy.”
This mindset is exactly what Providence hopes to foster. Small changes, made when kids are young, can reap huge health benefits as they get older. Providence’s support of the program not only is paying dividends now, as students learn how to grow their own food and make better eating choices, but also later, as they grow up and stay healthier, longer.
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