- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2015

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) - When a farmer offered her a bag of baby carrots at the Greeley Farmers Market, 3-and-a-half-year-old Elizabeth Shaw wasn’t interested. Her father, Jon, offered her a tiny, ripe tomato, but she turned her head. It wasn’t until he flashed a bright orange bell pepper and knelt to the little girl’s level that Elizabeth’s curiosity peaked. Her big brown eyes widened and her little fingers carefully reached out toward the vegetable, as if it might bite.

It didn’t, but she did.

Later that night, the veggies she helped choose landed in a bowl of homemade chili in front of the toddler’s enthusiastic - and hungry - face.

As all parents, even the Shaws, can attest, getting children to eat their vegetables isn’t always easy. For every happy celery-crunching moment, there are tantrums, spit-out mush (that once was a Brussels sprout) and longing looks across the room to the cookie jar.

With an obesity rate steadily on the rise in Weld County, getting kids to turn to squash instead of sugar is becoming more important. According to Gabriella Warner, program director for Colorado’s LiveWell@School Food Initiative, the obesity rate in the U.S. has tripled in the past 30 years. In Colorado, more than 25 percent of children are overweight or obese. In 2010, the CDC estimated more than $147 billion of medical costs attributed to obesity-related illnesses in the U.S.

“It’s money that doesn’t need to be spent, and that’s terrifying,” Warner said. “We have an opportunity to change the course of our health with food.”

That’s why organizations, like LiveWell, work to change the way schools, parents and children approach nutrition, with an emphasis on homemade, healthy foods. The LiveWell@School Food Initiative works with Colorado schools to cut processed foods and introduce healthier options into school cafeterias. The initiative is important because children may get up to 50 percent of their daily calories at school, Warner said. The program hopes to ensure those calories are filled with healthy, from-scratch foods.

It’s a big undertaking but one that’s well underway. Warner said the LiveWell@School Food Initiative has helped 90 schools and increased the from-scratch cooking by almost 19 percent in those districts.

One of those districts is Greeley-Evans School District 6. In 2010, the district’s Nutrition Services department sent the director and assistant director to a LiveWell@School Food Initiative culinary boot camp. The lessons they learned at the camp, paired with LiveWell’s assessment of the meals the district served, prompted a fundamental change in the lunch menu.

Four years ago, the district’s nutrition services director Jeremy West and his team rolled out a primarily from-scratch approach in the district’s kitchens. Before the change, less than 20 percent of school meals were actually cooked in house, rather than pre-prepared or processed. Now more than 75 percent of the food is cooked from scratch.

That’s right - the mystery meat is no more. Sauces, meats, sides and more are prepped in the district’s Central Production Kitchen by three chefs and a team of production assistants.

The district also gets produce and meat as locally as possible to ensure the highest nutrient density. Last year, 22 percent of the food served was local.

The district spends about $4.2 million on food annually. In the 2014-15 school year, $100,000 was spent on local produce, $200,000 was spent on local chicken, and the district is working on a bid to bring home local beef.

All these food efforts are part of the district’s overall wellness plan. It’s not just school lunch and breakfast West and his team aim to change, but also class parties, fundraisers and more. Instead of selling cookie dough, groups are encouraged to run or take part in walk-a-thons or read-a-thons. Last year, Centennial Elementary raised $16,000 during a read-a-thon fundraiser.

Fundraisers that aren’t food-based help keep the message consistent for kids trying to learn proper nutrition, said Carol Muller, Colorado’s regional field manager for Action for Healthy Kids, a group that works to promote healthier schools. It confuses kids when they’re taught to eat healthy, but then they win prizes for selling others unhealthy food. Inconsistent messages lead to inconsistent health.

“If they’re getting one message at school and a different at home, then that’s really hard for them to figure out really what the true values are,” Muller said. “It’s not like the problem is only in one area.”

That’s why Action for Healthy Kids offers workshops and resources for both parents and teachers to promote healthy activities in schools. The organization focuses on funding parents to champion health reform in schools. Currently, Action for Healthy Kids works with about 35 parents.

But for busy parents with picky kids, encouraging healthy food is one thing. Finding food the kid will eat so they don’t starve from an anti-veggie hunger strike is another.

Gabe Oravitz, 4, used to love veggies, but once he started going to daycare and hearing other kids say they didn’t like veggies, he brought the habit home. He and his family were at the Greeley Farmers Market on a quest for cherries to try to break that habit.

“The more they get exposed to the yummy, cheesy stuff, it’s sort of they put (veggies) down,” said Gabe’s father, Michael.

To combat this, his parents try different types of produce, try them several times and try preparing them different ways.

For some parents, like little Elizabeth Shaw’s, the best way to encourage their kids to eat more veggies is to involve them in the cooking process. When Jon and Jamie Shaw let Elizabeth help prepare food, she feels proud and can’t wait to eat her creation, just like she could hardly wait to eat that juicy, orange bell pepper.

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Information from: The Tribune of Greeley, Co, http://greeleytribune.com

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