For an increasing number of schoolchildren, the three R's have a new meaning: reading, writing and retailing.
In an effort to educate kids about nutrition, natural foods retailers are going into the classroom, teaching tots about everything from co-ops and cooking to oranges and organics. Here's a look at some innovative programs around the country designed to educate the youngest consumers about healthy eating.
'Harvest of the Month'
When the state of California developed its Harvest of the Month nutrition-education program, it was designated for low-income kids only. Members of the North Coast Co-op in Eureka and Arcata, Calif., saw a way to expand the program to all local schools. "We felt that everyone needs this information," says co-op Marketing Director Karen Brooks. "We think it's important for [natural foods retailers] to look and see what's happening in their community and where they can help."
Harvest of the Month highlights a specific vegetable or fruit each month and offers a free tool kit on its Web site, www.harvestofthemonth.com, with newsletters, posters and kids' activity sheets geared toward that produce item. The North Coast Co-op used that format to develop its own kid-friendly nutrition-education program.
The co-op's consumer education coordinator, who is also a former teacher, planned the program. It's key that someone with teaching experience be involved in a retailer-school project, Brooks says. "You really need to know how to engage and interact with kids and hold their attention if you're going to go into the classroom."
The North Coast Co-op program began with eight classrooms and quickly expanded to 65. Member volunteers visit classrooms, toting the featured fruit or vegetable of the month, along with recipe cards and cooked foods featuring that item. In a 20-minute to half-hour program, they discuss the origin of the fruit or vegetable and how it's grown. They also discuss seasonality and organics.
Brooks says the program is so successful, "kids are dragging their parents to the store" to check out the featured fruit or veggie and pick up a recipe card. "That produce item of the month is always a huge seller," she says.
The North Coast Co-op also hosts pumpkin patch tours every October. Last year, about 4,000 students came through on field trips. "It's a chance for them to visit a farm, get dirty, pick out a pumpkin and eat a healthy snack," Brooks says.
'Carrots in the Classroom'
Five years ago, members of the Davis Food Co-op in Davis, Calif., learned about a program used by a Lawrence, Kan., co-op. They liked the idea so much they developed their own volunteer teaching program called Carrots in the Classroom.
Today, there are a lot of carrots in Davis Public School classrooms. Co-op volunteers visit more than 90 elementary-school classes 35 weeks a year, offering hour-long cooking demonstrations, art projects, music and storytelling, all designed to teach kids about healthy eating and the virtues of cooperative environments. The program is so successful, co-op members have been appointed to the countywide Children's Alliance, an umbrella organization of government officials, teachers, healthcare providers, nonprofits and business leaders that issues a report card on children's issues. The co-op has also published a "Carrots in the Classroom" cookbook.
"We see it as a community-building exercise. We're not trying to drum into kids' heads that they have to eat their vegetables," says Davis Food Co-op Membership Director Doug Walter. "It's the crown jewel in our plan to market our co-op as the 'authority on everything.'"
The co-op encourages members who have some teaching background to come up with proposals for Carrots in the Classroom programs. It began by printing fliers about the program and talking to individual teachers. Eventually, word of mouth traveled from teacher to teacher and school to school. Kids helped spread the news, too. Walter says kids visit the store just to see their co-op teachers, and the cooking teacher has attained "rock-star status" among local kids and their parents.
Walter recommends that stores that want to do school programs "gauge what their community wants. Do they want you to come into each classroom? Do assemblies? Host a back-to-school fair?" If a school wants a classroom program, "start by establishing a relationship with one classroom in one school and finding out what works," he says. "Go slow—find out what the teacher needs to get you into the classroom, and how your presentation can help them with what they need to accomplish in the classroom." Walter says the Davis Food Co-op now requires teachers to take the initiative of inviting Carrots in the Classroom presenters to their classes. "We found when parents or a third party make contact, there's a potential for things to go wrong."
The Davis Food Co-op also has in-store education for children. Walter says even though the store kitchen has "pretty rudimentary equipment"—basically, a sink cart with butane-burner stoves—staffers are still able to conduct cooking classes for kids ages 5 to 8 or 8 to 12. Kids help make three to four recipes a class. "We get a couple ringer kids and test the recipes on them first to see if they like them," Walter says. "We don't do anything with intense attention to detail. They're all good, sturdy, recoverable recipes." Class participants might break eggs, peel garlic, whisk egg whites or smush precooked squash. They also learn to customize recipes to their taste.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 44, 62