A fresh approach to better nutrition

United Way for Southeastern Michigan is growing a vast network of partners to tackle childhood hunger.

Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Amy Kuras.

Anyone who’s watched a child greet a lovingly prepared meal with a “Yuck!” can understand the frustration with picky eaters. My son, despite my years-long efforts to get him to enjoy vegetables, still picks anything green out of his food with surgical precision.

Still, I keep offering up these fruits and veggies because I want him to hit key developmental milestones. Yet for many hardworking families in Greater Detroit, picky eaters may be just one of many barriers for parents who want their children to eat well.

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Eric Davis believes the health and well-being of all children is a shared responsibility.

“We do have a lot of families who cannot reliably access or afford food in Greater Detroit, but we also have high rates of children who are overweight and obese,” said Eric Davis, Vice President of Community Impact, Child and Family Well-Being for United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “So it is really important, if we’re trying to increase the access to meals, to make sure those meals have the kind of components that provide the nutrients that they need to be healthy.”

There is no single, quick-fix solution to address these issues, and United Way’s role is multi-faceted. With Meet Up and Eat Up, we’re working to ensure that kids have access to healthy meals three times a day, every day of the year. We do this through investments and partnerships. With Share our Strength’s Michigan No Kid Hungry, we are leading a community-driven effort to end hunger.

Betti Wiggins, executive director of the Office of Food Services for Detroit Public Schools, is an active member of Detroit No Kid Hungry and has been a major player in helping kids get healthy foods at school. The district has received national attention for its efforts to get more students chowing down on apple slices and carrot sticks – especially important in a district where more than 80 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced price meals.

The district takes an approach that allows students to take an active role in the foods they eat through the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, which is funded through federal child nutrition programs.

The collaborative provides seedlings and six raised beds to 76 Detroit schools. The seedlings are raised in greenhouses at the district’s Randolph Career and Technical Center on the northwest side. Three of the beds can be used for whatever the teacher running the program at each individual school wants to plant; the other three are required to be planted with produce for the district’s signature “stoplight salad.”

Children in Detroit learn how to grow their own produce.

Children in Detroit learn how to grow their own produce.

This dish is a salad of green zucchini, yellow crookneck squash and red cherry tomatoes, served with a cup of ranch dressing for dipping. Children harvest the vegetables that are served in their school’s salad, and Wiggins noted that the kids who literally get their hands dirty in the garden are more likely to eat the produce.

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Betti Wiggins incorporates healthy, local foods in the school meals.

“We’re all more likely to eat what we’re introduced to when something is not foreign or strange. And we become more discreet in our appetites when we have an array of different things that we can eat,” she said. “When you have a kid in the supermarket telling their mom to buy an avocado because they had guacamole at school, that’s different — especially when it’s not part of the cultural heritage for that ethnic group.”

Zaundra Wimberley, School Garden Collaborative coordinator, also hopes the garden program changes students’ habits.

“One of my goals is that every student in Detroit will understand that when they ask for a snack, it doesn’t have to necessarily be a packaged, processed product,” Wimberley said. “It can be a fruit or a vegetable. That’s a snack – a healthy snack.”

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Zaundra Wimberley is on a mission to make healthy food desirable to children.

Additionally, the Farm-to-School program allows DPS to contract with Michigan farmers to provide produce to the schools; about 22 percent of the produce served in DPS meal programs is locally grown.

A farmer in Covert Township, located on the west side of the state, produces 80,000 pounds of blueberries for the school district annually. South Haven’s orchards provide peaches, and another grows asparagus. Not only does this practice keep funds in the state, it breaks down barriers between rural communities and the city.

“We’re celebrating local produce by buying it and putting it in our kids’ diets,” Wiggins said. “Farmers know that Detroit is helping them earn their income.”

But kids and farmers aren’t the only winners. This work is also impacting families.

“If you have a child, you will know that to them, whatever the teacher says is right, and so students are going home, and they are encouraging their parents to purchase more fruit and vegetables when they go to the grocery store,” Wimberley says.

United Way for Southeastern Michigan takes the long view that investing in these programs now will have a payoff years down the road. When a child who gets good nutrition at a young age is able to perform well academically and is less likely to suffer preventable health problems decades later, it has a real impact on the economic health of the community.

“We’re going to pay for our health one way or another,” said Davis. “United Way believes (that we should) put that investment on the front end, and stave off and prevent these exorbitant health care costs and the illnesses that cause them by supporting our kids in having healthy lifestyles, which include nutritionally sound meals.”

It takes an entire community to do that work, Davis says, and collaborations like No Kid Hungry help coalesce the expertise of diverse organizations around the goal of better nutrition for children. “The health and well-being of our children is truly the responsibility of every adult in our region.”

Editor’s Note: You can help us end childhood hunger in Greater Detroit. Click here to learn more.