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Head Start program aims to improve families' eating habits through their youngest members

Preschool teacher Kim Braunstein's grocery bag is full.

She pulls out a pineapple. “Raise your hand if you know what this is. Who can tell me where it grows?”
A lot of little hands go up. But when Braunstein pulls out a perplexing hairy fruit, her 4-year-old audience is stumped. One boy guesses it might be a potato. Braunstein reveals the tiny black seeds and shocking green flesh inside, prompting fits of giggles.
If you think about it, a kiwi is pretty funny.
Part of the new Eat, Play, Grow initiative at Howard County’s Head Start centers, children who come from low-income families are being introduced to new and nutritious foods so that healthy choices are ingrained from an early age. The kids also bring the lessons home, influencing their parents’ food-buying habits.
“Children can be the change agents in their families,” says Alice Harris, education director for the Community Action Council Head Start program. “As opposed to top-down [from parents], we’re starting with the students.”
Beginning with a pilot program over the summer with funding from the Horizon Foundation, the Eat, Play, Grow initiative has expanded to all four Howard County Head Start centers. With nearly 300 students ages 3 to 5, the Head Start centers were an ideal place to incorporate the early lessons about food because students there already are served breakfast, lunch and snacks.
Head Start, created 50 years ago to prepare 3- to 5-year-olds to enter kindergarten ready to succeed, has been expanding its academic mission.
“Here we are working on the academic needs of these children,” says Harris. “But how do you do that in isolation, without responding to their health needs?”
Two years ago, Harris and her colleagues realized that more than 40 percent of enrolled students were at risk of becoming overweight due to poor nutritional habits. Childhood obesity affects a higher number of minority and lower-income children, according to numerous recent reports.
In addition to giving lessons on the alphabet, they wanted to teach the children about why it’s important to exercise, drink water and experiment with new foods.
The seven-week pilot program was a smashing success, says Harris. In addition to being embraced by students and parents, community partners including the University of Maryland Extension became involved. Local Rotary Club members even built container gardens so that students could grow their own vegetables.
“It just took off,” Harris says.
Students quickly learned to distinguish between “go” foods such as vegetables and low-fat milk that gives their bodies nutrients and energy, “slow” foods such as fruit juice that should be eaten occasionally but in smaller portions and “whoa” foods, such as candy and doughnuts, that should be eaten only once in a while.
It was shocking how immediately students absorbed the material and took what was being taught to heart, Harris says: “The kids ran with it.”
Each month, there’s a different theme. In December, the kids learned about “Fabulous Fruits.”
They tasted varieties of apples, sang songs about bananas and saw, in some cases for the first time, kiwis and papayas. At the same time, students were also counting, matching shapes, describing colors, reading about different parts of the world and cultures, and learning about agriculture.
“There are so many ways to incorporate math and science and to make it fun,” says dietitian Christine Lothen-Kline, who helped develop the Eat, Play, Grow curriculum.
Monthly challenges and incentives encourage families to participate, too. In December, parents were asked to keep a food log to keep track of the fruit servings they ate.
“The parental engagement, the educational connections, the exercise … they are all critical factors,” says Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, a Howard County philanthropy that works on health care issues. “It’s about putting the kids on the right path.”
Each month, students’ families are invited to Eat, Play, Grow family nights, for snacks, discussion, crafts and exercise.
“We’re reinforcing the same messages being taught in class,” says Lothen-Kline. “We show them there are things they can do together, that it doesn’t have to cost a lot or take a lot of prep work.”
It’s also important that parents — and teachers — realize that the children are watching how they eat, too. “If we’re saying, ‘Eat your vegetables,’ but we’re not doing it [that sets a poor example]. … Parents and teachers are rock stars [to children]. The children are looking to them.”
Program coordinators are working on how to measure students’ progress. The health department, which already conducts vision and hearing screenings for the children, has also taken Body Mass Index readings. The newly formed Healthy Families, Healthy Children Advisory Board for the Community Action Council is looking at additional ways to track the short- and long-term health impact these types of programs have on young children and their families, Harris says.
But they’re also looking at other data to track. “We want to know: Are we changing behaviors?” Harris says.
It’s working at Tara Jackson’s house. The Columbia mother of three finds herself serving healthy foods that she’d been avoiding, assuming her 4-year-old son wouldn’t like it. Snap peas are getting another chance, for example, she says.
“Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean he won’t,” says Jackson, who is also making an effort to exercise with her family. “This program has been great.”
The $150,000 Horizon Foundation grant runs through the end of 2016. The hope is that the idea will spread to other Head Start programs around the state, says Vernick.
It’s projected to cost about $75,000 per year to continue the program in 2017 and beyond, says Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council, which runs Head Start and various other social programs in Howard County. But, she says, the Eat, Play, Grow program is so “important” to the mission of Head Start and to the families it serves that she believes it will continue. 

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