With acres of growing corn and veggies, bright colorful signs, tractors, and child size gardening equipment, it is not a surprise that this place stands as a staple for school field trips, summer camps, and toddler play dates.
“I was out here on my own with a shovel on MLK day in 2010, starting to get things moving. Everything was a blank slate, just dirt everywhere,” said Leza Carter, founder and program coordinator of Tucson Village Farm, a hands-on working farm with educational programs for two years old all the way up to high school seniors, “Now I look back on our growth and see it as a true testament to the need there was for a place like this in Tucson.”
The substantial growth Carter talks about is not an understatement. In the year 2011, approximately 1,200 individuals took part in a program at Tucson Village Farm, but in 2014, the number totaled in at 22,300.
The farm, located at Campbell and Roger, is so much more than an escape from the desert landscape; it is a place where children comprehend where their foods come from, why healthy food is important for their bodies, and how to make basic food dishes in the kitchen,according to Carter.
Each child visits six to eight stations at the farm. These activities can be the veggie identifications station, a physical activity where they get their bodies moving, taste testing different foods grown on the farm, feeding the chickens, having a story time with a children’s book based on nutrition, and milking the life size mechanical cow.
“Kids so rarely see food in its natural state so when they pick that carrot from the ground their eyes light up and the connection is made,” said Carter, who reported that 2,700 carrots were picked by children this past school year.
For those who are in fourth grade or older, more complex nutrition lessons are explained.
“We have a big bucket of sugar and measure out exactly how much sugar is in their soda or we scoop fat to show how much in their hamburgers,” said Carter.
It is apparent that the lessons learned are truly clicking with the children just by looking at the packed farm calendar.
“All schools have access to our farm and once a teacher comes, it turns into something they do with their classes every year,” said Carter, who hosts an average of 12 schools per month, “It’s a unique experience and it’s in a central place in Tucson.”
The Tucson Village Farm is just one of the ways the ciy of Tucson is rising up to fight childhood obesity, an epidemic that has been on the rise since the late 90’s.When the nation realized how serious the problem had become, states and communities across the nation began to look for solutions.
Haile Thomas, 14-year-old founder of the Happy Organization, recognized the need for change when she was only nine years old.
“I learned that for the first time in two centuries, children were predicted to live shorter lifespans than the adults in their lives. This horrible prediction is due mainly to the rise in the number of children affected by health issues like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. I also learned that the root causes are that young people aren’t being nourished by most of the foods we consume, and even worse, some of the foods are even making us sick,” said Thomas, an eighth grader at Tucson’s The Gregory School, “Despite these alarming statistics, nutrition education, cooking lessons, and even physical activities, was not being offered in all schools, or as affordable programs in the community. This fueled my desire to establish the Happy Organization and our programs are offered to address these issues.”
Since Thomas is still a student, her organization is most active throughout the summer when it offers four week sessions of cooking lessons for classes that are full of approximately 20 children per session, according to Thomas.
Thomas, who helped her own father reverse his Type II diabetes through healthy eating and activity, said that she aims to “help educate, raise awareness, and affect healthy behavior change.”
No child should have to fight obesity and they should all be given the tools to succeed, said Thomas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a child’s body mass index, often referred to as BMI, must be at or above 95 percent of other children that are their same age and sex to be classified as obese. If a child’s BMI is at or above 85 percent than the child is considered to be overweight and at risk of becoming obese.
With these high percentiles, many people may not recognize just how common it is to fall into this category despite the young age.
According to the 2011 State Obesity Profiles from the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, Arizona had 16.9 percent of children from ages 10 to 17 who were within the overweight BMI percentile . A total of 19.8 percent of the children from ages 10 to 17 in Arizona had a BMI at or above the obese percentile of 95 percent.
As a comparison, only Oregon and New Jersey had the lowest amount of obese children. Twenty-seven states including Colorado, New York, and Florida held a percent of 10.1 to 15 percent of children that were obese. Arizona’s numbers were within the same range of 15 other states such as Georgia, Nevada, and North Dakota. The four states that held the highest percentages of 20.1 percent of obese children or more included Louisiana and South Carolina. The District of Columbia was also within the highest percentages.
The harsh reality of the issue has become a platform for much needed change in both the school and the home.
In July of 2006, the Arizona Department of Education released a revision of the Arizona Statue 15-242, most commonly referred to as the Arizona Nutritional Standards. According to the revision, the changes were made to better ensure that the food that children are obtaining in school will properly contribute to a healthy lifestyle. This not only applied to food provided in school lunches, but to every food that was available during the normal school day including vending machines, snack bars, and school fundraisers, according to the Arizona Nutrition Standards.
Followed by the state revision in 2006, the USDA created the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. Under this new federal law, schools must reach specific nutrition standards in the meals they provide and will in return receive a six cent meal reimbursement increase for each lunch or breakfast that they serve, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Crystal Kalahar, director of food services for the Marana Unified School District and former school nutrition specialist for the Arizona Department of Education, knows firsthand the great lengths that the school district has to go through in order to provide the best food optionsfor its students.
“It is important to provide students with options. These options are not required by law; it only requires that food itself be healthy as set by the nutrient standards. To entice children to eat at school and receive a healthy meal they must be given a variety of choices, particularly in regards to the entrée option,” said Kalahar, who has been with the school district since 2013,
The school district’s menu also emphasizes the concept of exposing and reintroducing different foods to the child.
“We continue the development of the menu to include variety because we believe that exposing students to a variety increases the chance they will find something they like. Once they start to eat with us, and like the food, they are more likely to try new foods,” said Kalahar.
While the school district goes above and beyond what the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 requires, Kalahar has noticed some potential disadvantages to the program.
“In my experience, the new regulations have increased food waste. This is particularly true of fruits and vegetables. Per the meal pattern regulations, the student cannot leave the lunch line without at least on half cup of fruit or vegetable. The student can make the poor decision of not eating that fruit or vegetable once out of the line and that leads to waste.”
Yet despite the flaw, Kalahar still tries to see it as part of the process.
“While the waste absolutely troubles me, I take the approach that the student leaving the line with fruit or vegetable on their tray is a step in the right direction,” said Kalahar.
Wesley Delbridge, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Arizona Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said, “What people are forgetting is that children are only at school for 180 days out of the year. While that still is a lot, it still leaves many days when they are at home or in different places. In a given year, a student only receives about 15 to 20 percent of their yearly calories from school.”
Parents need to learn not only what belongs on their child’s plate, but also the proper way to present these health conscious meals to their child, according to registered dietitian, Nancy Driscoll.
Driscoll suggests that by letting the child assist in cooking and creating the meal, the hands-on experience will provide the child with a sense of pride and connection to the food they are going to eat.
Driscoll also said that there should no longer be a “clean plate club” at the dinner table.
An additional key to remember when creating a child’s plate is the importance of Food exposure, said Delbridge, who also serves as director of food services for the Chandler Unified School District.
According to Delbridge, research shows that a child can be introduced to a food 10 to 15 times before they will even try it. This is why fruit and vegetable exposure is so important. Even if a child does not eat a strawberry the first nine times it is on his plate, he may be comfortable enough to try it the next time it shows up.
“Parents need to know this because they so often get frustrated that their kids are not eating their asparagus or broccoli, but it shouldn’t be a stressful thing,” said Driscoll, “Keep serving it and they may get brave enough to try it.”
Delbridge also suggests exposing the new foods in different ways. “By mixing it up, the child may find they like the different tastes or textures. Just don’t give up,” said Delbridge.
Driscoll said mixing all the necessary food groups into a casserole can be an easy, yet balanced alternative to make sure that is all there.
Now when it comes to how to build a plate for a child, the science is a simple step by step process.
First, it is important to look at what beverage is being paired with the meal, according to Delbridge. The best beverage choice for every meal will be water. The next option will be some sort of fat free dairy like milk. If juice is an option for the child, it is important that is moderated to only six ounces and that it is 100 percent real juice, said Delbridge.
On the plate, there must be some form of lean protein base such as chicken. This should then be accompanied by a 100 percent whole grain item side such as a pasta or brown rice. If condiments are needed for the meal, only serve around one ounce since they can have hidden sugars and sodium, said Delbridge.
Finally, there is the fruit and vegetables portion of the plate. What is most important to remember when building a child’s plate is how much they love color, said Delbridge.
According to Delbridge, the plate should be filled with two to three different servings of vegetables or fruits. A child will respond positively to a plate with multiple different colors.
“The most important thing I feel kids should know about their nutrition is it’s not about eating healthy all the time. It’s about variety and balance. Food should be fun and healthy. There is also a rule that nutrition experts like to go by called the 5-2-1-none rule. 5 fruits and vegetables each day, 2 hours or less of screen time, 1 or more hours of physical activity and limited sugary beverages. Eating healthy should also be about living a healthy lifestyle,” saidKaTrina Samuels-Garrison, registered dietitian and member of the Arizona Academy of Nutrition, “Whether it’s chicken breast with green beans and a potato or hot dogs with mac and cheese and broccoli. Meals don’t have to be perfect all the time.”
Sandalea Woodall, mother of a five year old girl, uses this approach of not stressing over the “perfect” meal in her own home.
“This is a bit more difficult to answer. There are a lot of people who are passionate about this topic. Some parents swear by organic, free range or gluten free foods. People just want the best for their kids. The best answer I can give is that parents should do what they think is best,”said Samuels-Garrison, “I have a friend who has a sensitive stomach so he tends to buy organic products. If organic is more tolerable then that’s the best option for him. I, on the other hand, can eat pretty much anything. I only choose organic foods that have some of the highest traces of pesticides, even though these levels are still considered safe. Food affects different people in different ways. Just be careful about cutting out whole food groups from a diet. You have to be sure you’re not restricting or limiting any nutrients.”
Delbridge believes that the way to get past these labels with children, is by simply teaching them to eat food that is in its “least processed, natural, and whole state.”
If a parent sticks to the basics with their child and keep them away from junk food, Delbridge says this will be enough to teach children about nutrition and not complicate things with all the different options.
“Another thing to remember is that these special labels often come at an extra price so for a low income family it may not be in their budget. That doesn’t mean they can’t eat healthy,” said Driscoll, “By simply washing vegetables in water and vinegar in your home, you canalready reduce any risk that it may have.”
Each dietitian also highlighted the importance of parent involvement beyond just making the right choices at the grocery store.
“One of the best ways to teach a child proper nutrition is to do what you want them to do,” said Samuels-Garrison, “In other words, let them see you eating fruits and vegetables, drinking water, exercising, and limiting the less healthy options.”
Driscoll said that children “learn from what they see” and that parents acting as a role model are “crucial” for a child to understand the importance of the topic.
Jaime Odom is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at email@example.com