- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

DAYTON, Wash. (AP) - Leslie Sweetwood fanned out seed packets like a poker player with a winning hand, a deck of delights for dispersal.

Pictures of tomatoes, basil and most every sort of pepper peeked out from Sweetwood’s fingers, ready to be plucked by the young gardeners surrounding her. Seedling trays stood ready, already brimming with soil scooped in by eager hands.

Inside Dayton High School’s greenhouse - populated with bright flowers and leafy vegetable starts - a recent warm, springlike day is made considerably warmer. No one seems to mind, especially the enthusiastic Sweetwood.

A hair stylist by career, Sweetwood is new to Dayton School District’s after-school program, which is itself new to the district this school year and aimed at third- through sixth-graders. So far, the program has introduced participants to historic Dayton tours, relationship-building groups, cooking and now gardening, said coordinator Monica Mitchell.

Gardening, and the cooking class in late winter, came courtesy of a federal grant through Columbia County Department of Health from the Supplement Nutrition Education Program.

“Growing Healthy Habits” uses food preparation and gardening to teach nutrition and encourage youngsters to eat more fruits and vegetables, plus increase physical activity.

According to numerous studies, fruits and vegetables tend to be the most under-consumed food group in low-income households, in otherwise healthy diets. Gardening is an effective means of changing those numbers in youngsters.

Used in Maryland since 2010, more than 12,000 students around the country have participated in the program’s curriculum. In evaluating Growing Healthy Habits, by 2015 officials had found more than half the children enrolled were trying vegetables for the first time.

Dhrau (“Drew”) Hans understands that completely.

“My mom has nothing but vegetables in her garden. Except for there’s some kinds of flowers,” the 10-year-old said.

Nonetheless, the thought of eating any vegetable makes him gag, Hans said, using some mime work to demonstrate how that looks.

“I like no vegetables. I like all the junk foods,” the fourth-grader said.

“You tried some things in cooking,” Sweetwood reminded him, listing off some of the dishes her group created, including tostadas and pumpkin pies.

Nova Laws, 10, continued working his soil with precision, peering closely to ensure even distribution.

“I always garden at my house,” he said, not looking up from his task.

Dayton, like small towns everywhere, has a mix of families. For some, cooking and eating together is a priority. For others, there are things that need more attention, Sweetwood said.

The cooking class, done at a local church, ended up getting neophyte chefs into the kitchen - some for the first time - and familiarizing them with safe knife and stove use, among other skills.

Sweetwood said the gardening curriculum followed in perfect timing, just about the time winter left for good. The kids were ready to be let loose to run, and the school district partnered with Blue Mountain Station, Port of Columbia’s food-processing business park and co-op market on the west end of Dayton.

There, Sweetwood’s charges are allowed to use the station’s eight large planters, in a location that gets students outside on planting days and allows for a highly-visible showcase of their gardening skills.

Soil, Sweetwood tells her audience on this day, is made up of all kinds of things. Worms keep those things all mixed up, she added.

“I hate worms,” Dhrau chimed in.

Be that as it may, studies have found Growing Healthy Habits can change minds. About 75 percent of teachers using the program have reported the effect goes beyond the classroom, even influencing changes in school cafeteria offerings and student eating habits, in and out of a school setting, according to the program’s website.

Sweetwood said she believes it.

“Every time we have something that we eat, someone ends up liking something they weren’t expecting to. Every time,” she said. “They sometimes ask for seconds.”

Parents can also do things to fertilize the nutrition concepts her group has been growing, Sweetwood added.

“Cook with them,” she said. “When they are cooking something, then they want to eat it. Be easy introducing things, make it small and interesting. Surprise them.”

___

Information from: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, https://www.union-bulletin.com


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