Center for Disease Control photo>
By Michele Munz
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)
ST. LOUIS — Rick Delashmit had two volunteers hand out large, white napkins to their fellow third-graders sitting on the gym floor. He told the students, "This is your landing pad for the fruits and vegetables you will be eating today."
The kids looked at each other with apprehension. Delashmit — a short, stocky man with a commanding voice — stood in front of stacks of ice cube trays holding 10 different fruits and vegetables he cut that morning and explained the rules of the game.
Delashmit, 38, the general manager for Belleville Farmers Market, has developed Taste Buds, a novel but effective way for children to include more fruits and vegetables in their diets. He's presented the free program to almost 1,500 students in St. Clair County over the past two months, and kids are loving it.
It's caught the community's attention as well. Delashmit has garnered sponsorships from Memorial Hospital and the YMCA of Southwest Illinois. In February, his idea won the most votes out of 1,000 grass-roots initiatives nationwide to win a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh Project grant. Pepsi likes the idea so much, the company is helping him develop a prototype to help other farmers markets start a similar program in their communities.
Delashmit says Taste Buds is appealing because it's simple and fun. He doesn't hit the students over the head with how fruits and vegetables are good for you. He doesn't lecture about how they are important for optimal child growth, weight management and preventing chronic disease. He doesn't show pictures of the food pyramid.
"You want kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? Then take them fruits and vegetables and find an exciting way to get them to eat them," Delashmit said.
As Delashmit began his program with about 40 dubious third-graders at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School this week, he told them they didn't have to eat every bit. He wanted them to learn one important thing.
"We will show all the grown-ups and family we know that we're not afraid to try new things," he said. "That's what this is all about."
LEARNING ABOUT FRUIT
In September, Delashmit's wife, Jennifer, brought items from the farmers market and helped serve a fruit salad at the nearby Westhaven Elementary School. Afterward, she talked about how amazed she was that some kids had no idea what cantaloupe and honeydew were.
The same month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing less than 10 percent of adolescents eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day. In addition, other studies show, they don't eat the necessary variety. Potatoes and iceberg lettuce make up half of Americans' vegetable consumption.
"For me it was like a light bulb went off," Delashmit said. "I became aware that there are a lot of kids out there who aren't being exposed to this at a young age and aren't going to develop healthy eating habits as they get older."
Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, author of "Feeding Baby Green and Raising Baby Green," says trying new flavors and textures gets harder after age 2. He writes that it's important to expose children to the sights, smells and feel of vegetables early and often. Nutrition experts suggest enlisting children's help in planting a garden, buying produce or preparing meals.
Delashmit said he knew he had his work cut out for him. He drew on his experience with his two sons, ages 5 and 6, and their fascination with the market's trucks. He decided he would visit schools in a Taste Buds truck decked out with pictures of smiling veggies.
With the help of his wife, who used to be a teacher, they came up with a competitive format that involves splitting students into teams and challenging them to each try five fruits and vegetables at the cheers of their classmates.
"We set it up like a game show, sort of like 'Fear Factor,' but with fruits and vegetables," he said.
The students win "Taste Bud Bucks" which can be redeemed for free fruit at the farmers market with its tables of everything from avocados to zucchini. Families get another buck after coming in.
"I want them to reinforce this at home by working it into meals and helping them get access to more," Delashmit said.
'FUN AND UNIQUE'
The impetus for Taste Buds came in November when Delashmit attended a health summit hosted by the St. Clair County Health Dept. When the crowd broke into groups, he threw out his idea. Representatives from Memorial Hospital and the YMCA liked it so much they signed up as sponsors.
"We see the Taste Buds program as an innovative and memorable way to reach young kids and families _ a really fun and unique hands-on approach toward making a real difference in helping people live healthier lives," said Lisa Suarez, marketing director for the YMCA of Southwest Illinois.
Getting into area schools was easy. The Belleville Farmers Market already has strong relationships with many schools through its Farmers 4 Good program, which gives up to 10 percent of purchases made at the market to nonprofits and schools that sign up as members. First lady Michelle Obama's launch in February of her campaign against childhood obesity, highlighting how one in three children are overweight, was also wind in the program's sails.
Since the first week of March, Delashmit has spent three days a week visiting classrooms from preschool to sixth grade. Children stop him in the halls, bragging how they didn't throw their carrots away at lunch. Parents send thank yous. Over 300 Taste Bud Bucks have made their way back to the farmer market.
Another boost came in mid-March when Taste Buds won a $25,000 grant in the monthly Pepsi Refresh Project competition. Pepsi hired a social responsibility media company GOOD to ensure implementation and help Delashmit develop a prototype.
"There's no reason why that what we're doing here in Belleville can't be picked up and duplicated across the country," Delashmit said.
The two teams of Abraham Lincoln third-graders — called the Giggly Grapes and Kicking Kiwi — went through cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, kiwi, pink navel oranges, mango, sugar snap peas, baby carrots, celery and green peppers. Delashmit talked about their seeds and how they grow. Many kids started with a cautious nibble. Some held their noses. But nearly all didn't just taste the bites, they cleared their napkins.
"It's good! It's good!" one boy told the others. "I want another one," a girl said. Hold-outs were encouraged to try it together on the count of three. Only one distraught boy refused to try anything.
Nearly all the students' hands shot in the air when Delashmit asked who had tried something new. Most said they discovered something they didn't like, but they also discovered something they loved.
"Did anyone's stomach come out of their mouth and lay on the floor? Did anyone throw up?" Delashmit asked, getting laughs and a unified "Noooo."
"So what are we going to do when your parents make you something new for dinner?" he asked again. The kids screamed, "Try it!"
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