Pierre elementary schools are opening the minds of students by appealing to their stomachs with a health-oriented program called Harvest of the Month.
Forward-thinking Californians originally came up with the concept, and five years ago Tiffany Sanchez brought it to St. Joseph Elementary after she heard about it during a health class in Napa Valley. Since then, it’s spread to all four Pierre elementary schools and Pierre Indian Learning Center, as well as other schools across the state.
“Healthy foods help us work and think better,” said Sanchez. “We all love sweets, myself included, but I think we need to have an awareness of what we’re putting in our bodies, how it makes us feel and how it makes our bodies function. That’s a personal responsibility.”
The program promotes increased access and consumption of fruits and vegetables, while also encouraging daily physical activity. It brings together the classroom, cafeteria, home and community to achieve a common goal - healthier eating, learning and behavioral habits for students.
Sanchez has worked with lunch supervisors and parent volunteers at St. Joseph to hold monthly assemblies educating students about the geology, peak season and health benefits of eating fresh produce. After the presentation, students get to try the food prepared several different ways.
“I tried to pick fruits and vegetables in season that kids maybe haven’t had a lot of exposure to,” Sanchez said. “We have to change kids’ thought processes and palettes, because they have to try a food at least seven times before they acquire a taste for it.”
Inspired by Sanchez’s work at St. Joseph, Community Wellness Coordinator Danette Jarzab has worked with Pierre elementary schools to incorporate a similar program that’s held during physical education classes.
Parent volunteers help Jarzab with preparing food for over 1,200 kids every month.
“Right now, having it in gym class makes sense because it ties in with health,” Jarzab said. “It’s 15 minutes of their gym time, and it’s connected with healthy choices and healthy communities.”
This is the first year that all four Pierre elementary schools are involved with Harvest of the Month. Todd Bohls, physical education teacher at Buchanan, has been doing the presentations since last year and has seen an overwhelming positive response from students, parents and faculty.
“Kids would actually bring the food in their sack lunches; they were proud of it. I had parents telling me that the recipes were really good,” Bohls said. “I’ve heard other people say that they’ve gone to family get-togethers and a dish showed up that was a Harvest of the Month food. So we know that it’s getting out there and that people are actually using it.”
October was root vegetable month in Pierre elementary schools, and students tried sliced jicama, turnip soup and mashed rutabaga. Last month they ate grapes three different ways, and next month they’ll try squash.
Students are encouraged to take at least one bite before saying no thank you, with the emphasis being on which way they liked the fruit or vegetable best. Afterwards, they’re presented with a sticker saying that they tried something new, and they’re sent home with a sheet of recipes and information about the produce.
Bohls said that the hope is to show kids and their families healthy and tasty alternatives to junk food. He’d like to see a shift from processed foods to more whole and natural foods at school and at home.
“It’s really changed my life. It’s made me eat healthier, think outside the box and not always fall into the same routine,” Bohls said. “Living out here in Pierre, S.D., this food is available. You just have to look for it.”
Jarzab also hopes that children and adults will enjoy the fruits and vegetables together.
“If students and families eat the [produce], then it will become more common on the dinner plate, in their lunch bins or on the breakfast menu at home,” Jarzab said. “That will create high school students who love fruits and vegetables even more.”
In addition to more proactive parents, Sanchez would like to see schools step up by improving preparation of fruits and vegetables.
“Kids are our future, and if they’re not well, our future is kind of grim,” Sanchez said. “Schools should set the bar for what a nutritious meal looks like. For some kids, it’s going to be the only nutritious meal they get in the day.”
Harvest of the Month programs throughout the community are supported with funding from the St. Mary’s Foundation, SD Discovery Center, Pierre’s ACHIEVE grant and Harvest of the Month SD Team Nutrition Grants. Dakotamart provides fresh produce at a discount, and displays “Harvest of the Month Featured Produce” signs each month.