Program provides lessons on healthy eating

Amy Swanson, a volunteer for FoodCorps, hands a kale sticker to Hop Brook Elementary School kindergartener Payton Perillo as a reward for choosing healthy fruits and vegetables Tuesday at the school in Naugatuck. Swanson is working in the school this year to promote healthy food choices. -LARAINE WESCHLER/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — Healthy choices are on the menu at Hop Brook Elementary School as a new program this year aims to convince students to fall in love with healthy food and eat it every day.

Amy Swanson, an AmeriCorps volunteer from Oregon, is launching a FoodCorps program at the school.

Swanson chatted with kindergartners during lunch Tuesday, handing out kale stickers to students eating healthy vegetables. School lunch includes a choice of two fruits or vegetables, but most kids go for the grapes and pineapple over cucumber and broccoli, Swanson said. Although fruit is good, Swanson’s hoping to promote vegetables, and started with a green pepper tasting on Wednesday.

About 90 percent of children nationwide don’t eat enough vegetables and 60 percent don’t eat enough fruit, according to FoodCorps’ literature.

The nonprofit organization has 225 service members in 17 states, including 20 in Connecticut, combating diet-related disease with hands-on gardening and cooking lessons, steering students to healthier choices in the cafeteria and encouraging community buy-in for healthy choices.

Swanson studied horticulture for two years at community college and has volunteered in farming and outdoor education in Oregon and Europe.

She spent her first few weeks getting to know staff and modeling healthy eating in the cafeteria. This week, she’ll start co-teaching lessons on healthy eating in Hop Brook classrooms by connecting food to curriculums in math, science and language arts. For her first lesson, she plans to talk about the life cycle of an apple and make crock pot apples sauce with students.

The students will help sell fresh produce at a farmers market Oct. 3.

In the spring, Swanson hopes to start a school vegetable garden in the former Hop Brook pool, which has been filled in with dirt. Swanson is planning a painting party fundraiser to raise the $1,000 to $2,000 she’ll need for the garden.

Swanson is looking for community involvement to make the program sustainable, even after she leaves. Most FoodCorps programs stay in the school three to five years, Swanson said.

One third of children nationwide and half of children of color will develop diabetes in their lifetime, according to FoodCorps.

Students in FoodCorps schools eat triple the amount of fruits and vegetables as students in schools who receive less hands-on learning, according to the nonprofit. Last year, 75 percent of FoodCorps schools were measurably healthier by the end of the year.

The program is exposing children to healthy foods they typically wouldn’t try, school Principal Kathy Taylor said.

Taylor said food service manager Kate Murphy worked to get the FoodCorps program in Naugatuck. The district paid a $7,500 fee for the program, which came out of the cafeteria budget. Taylor said she hopes the program expands to other Naugatuck schools in future years.

“I think all of us can always use a little help with eating healthier,” Taylor said.