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Adult serving healthy food to children in a school cafeteria
Spring Dawson-McClure, an investigator on the Kohl’s Fav5 Club project, serves samples to students at Grady Brown Elementary.

HILLSBOROUGH- The childhood obesity epidemic has brought many different ideas and approaches to helping children learn to eat more healthy foods, and making those changes can be especially difficult when it comes to school lunch. A partnership between UNC Children’s and the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention—funded through a $59,956 donation  from Kohl’s —is enabling cafeteria staff in Orange County to develop healthier menu options and solicit feedback from the most important stakeholders: students themselves.

“The goal of the project is to get kids to try new foods and build enthusiasm around the school lunch program in Orange County Schools,” said Larissa Calancie, who is helping to lead the project from the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

The initiative brought professional chef Ryan McGuire of the Chefs Academy in Morrisville, N.C., in consultation with the school nutrition staff in Orange County elementary schools to develop new menu options that were healthy, tasty, and met with federal nutritional guidelines for schools. The study culminated in a taste testing event called Try-Day Friday in each of the seven elementary schools in Orange County.

Students tried three new dishes: super Caesar salad; crispy fish wraps; and French toast casserole with apples. After sampling the items, students completed a short survey indicating whether they liked each and if they would try the items again.

“I really liked the fish,” said Tia Hilber, a fourth grade student at Hillsborough Elementary School. Her classmates agreed, and some even asked for second helpings.

“I loved the salad, especially the dressing,” said Isabel Sutton, also a fourth grader at Hillsborough Elementary. “The only thing is I wish it had more vegetables than just the cabbage and carrots.”

The recipe development and taste testings are part of the Kohl’s FAV5 Club. The program and its website offer practical, evidence-based strategies for encouraging healthy eating and physical activity among children and adults.

The program launched at the start of the academic year with information sessions for parents, teachers, administrators, and cafeteria staff, establishing the powerful influence that healthy eating and exercise habits have on brain development, academic success and overall well-being. Students received water bottles to stress the importance of hydration and pedometers to help them track their activity.

Eliana Perrin, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine who is involved with phase two of the program’s development which will take place in the Chapel Hill-Carborro Schools says it is important for children and parents to understand the health consequences of childhood obesity.

“In North Carolina, 19 percent of children are classified as obese and less than one-third of elementary school children consume recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Perrin. “Obese children and adolescents may experience immediate health consequences and may be at risk for weight-related health problems in adulthood.”

The project also provided an opportunity for UNC students to learn about nutrition research in public schools by volunteering to help prepare and serve the samples. Will Chapman, a master’s student in Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said he wanted to volunteer because he enjoys working with kids and the project compliments some research he is working on as part of his degree.

Teacher dressed up as corn interacts with students
Teachers at Hilsborough Elementary dressed up as vegetables to get students excited about the event.

“I’m working on a proposal for work similar to this, so I’ve learned a lot about what’s involved and found some missing pieces in my proposed work,” he said. “I learned a lot about what it takes to conduct something like this. It’s very scientific, but there are also realities about working in this kind of environment.”

The Child Nutrition Services staff plan to add some of these menu items to the school lunch menu beginning in the Spring.  They also plan to partner with No Kid Hungry NC to  capitalize on the enthusiasm generated in the Kohl’s  project to increase children’s participation in school breakfast, as part of ongoing efforts to increase access to healthy food in support children’s health and school success.

Lisa Sales, the child nutrition manager at Hillsborough Elementary, said she was very excited to be a part of the project.

“It gives me joy to see them eating healthy foods, and fresh foods,” said Sales. “I’m a trained chef and this is part of the reason I went to school. These children are our future, and seeing them eat healthy foods is why we are here.”

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