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UC CalFresh program teaches children healthy eating, and parents get the message, too

• Children learn to identify healthy foods, increase their physical activity and apply at home what they’ve learned at school.

• A goal is to reduce obesity: More than 40% of schoolchildren in the central San Joaquin Valley are overweight or obese.

• Parents report making at least one healthy change, such as reading nutrition labels.

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Emily Harris was on stage with an orange cauliflower.

The vegetable grabbed the attention of her audience: first-graders at Lowell Elementary in Fresno.

“Cauliflower is supposed to be white,” the students said. Harris, a community education specialist at the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program in Fresno, didn’t argue, but she offered assurance that cauliflower comes in more than one color.

Introducing new vegetables is one of the goals of the University of California Cooperative Extension educators who provide nutrition information to schoolchildren and low-income adults in Fresno County.

The program teaches children how to identify healthy foods and encourages them to increase physical activity and to apply what they learn to make healthy choices at school and home. Adults are taught skills to help families eat well on limited food budgets.

The UC CalFresh program is in 75 elementary schools and 1,000 classrooms throughout Fresno County. Madera County schools will be added in October.

A goal is to reduce obesity. Fresno County has among the highest rates of overweight and obese children statewide. For example, 43% of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders in the central San Joaquin Valley in 2010 were overweight or obese, according to the California Fitness Test.

Because food habits begin in childhood, nutrition educators hope that by steering children to fruits, vegetables and whole grains, the healthier fare will become part of daily diets.

Evidence suggests children are getting the message.

About 98% of teachers participating in the UC CalFresh program reported that more students were now willing to try new foods offered at the school, compared to the beginning of the school year. And parents’ tastes appear to be changing as well. According to the 2014 UC CalFresh report, 85% of adults said they were making at least one healthy change, such as planning meals, preparing foods without added salt, reading nutrition labels and feeding their children breakfast.

Nutrition lessons are offered as part of a Fresno County Jobs & Beyond workplace education class. Student Lauren Negrete, 25, said she’s buying more whole grain foods and also is reading food labels. “I really didn’t pay attention to that before.”

UC CalFresh educator Tacu Vang captivated Jobs & Beyond classmates at a lesson in March that involved counting teaspoons of sugar in beverages. They gulped upon learning there are about 20 teaspoons in a 24-ounce soda. “I’m going to stay away from sugary drinks,” said Juan Martinez, 35. “You can’t get better than water.”

Parents in the Lowell neighborhood, speaking through Spanish interpreter Erika Cordero, a parent volunteer, said they have added more fruits and vegetables to their diets because of UC CalFresh classes. Ana Garcia, 28, attended a class offered in March. She appreciated getting information about diet and weight loss. “I eat smaller portions now, and I’ve added more vegetables and fruits in my meals.”

Claudia Cervantes said her daughter, Dana, a Lowell first-grader, comes home from school and tells her “about the healthy foods and the not-healthy foods.” Dana’s interest in fruits and vegetables has given Cervantes incentive to plan healthier meals.

Lowell first-grade teacher Virginia Gutierrez is sold on the benefits of the program.

“Parents come in saying their children tasted something and they liked it, and they want to know what it is so they can buy it,” Gutierrez said. The UC CalFresh educators also encourage children to be fit, and her students tell her: “The nutrition lady said we need to exercise.”

Harris came to Gutierrez’s class last month with a bag full of veggies. Besides the orange cauliflower, she had purple and white carrots, rainbow chard, green onions, dried red kidney beans, fresh green beans, jalapeño peppers, eggplant, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, an ear of corn and an artichoke.

As students passed the vegetables from desk to desk, the artichoke raised the most eyebrows. One first-grader guessed, “It’s a pine cone.”

This time, the spiky-leafed vegetable was part of a lesson on the parts of a plant — root, stem, leaf, flower, fruit, seed. Next time, students may get a taste.

Azriel Carrillo, sitting in the front row, had been paying attention to the vegetable lessons. “Seeds were in the green beans,” he said. He also knew the nutrition lesson’s overall message: “Vegetables are healthy. Vegetables keep you healthy.”

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