Battle Creek Family YMCA changes palates one vegetable at a time

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This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles about people delivering evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible thanks to funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

When Battle Creek Family YMCA Staff looked at the challenges facing their community, with lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables topping the list. Many families served by the organization noted that there were few grocery stores offering fresh produce nearby. And with tight food budgets, they also expressed caution about limited spending on fresh foods they weren’t used to preparing, especially produce that could spoil more quickly than shelf-stable items.

“I think our challenges are probably like other similar communities,” says Kelly Boles Chapman, director of community outreach for the Battle Creek Family YMCA. “A lot of residents think fresh, healthy food is more expensive.”

To serve the community, Battle Creek Y has established the Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) Farmer’s Market Food Navigator (FMFN) on the program Battle Creek Farmers Market. They also use the Choose a Better Snack™ (PABS) to introduce children from kindergarten to grade three to fresh fruits and vegetables. PABS also has a component called Play your way for an hour a day to inspire kids to be active 60 minutes a day.

The programs are made possible through funding from MFF’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed). MFF is a state implementing agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is a United States Department of Agriculture educational program that teaches SNAP-eligible individuals how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programs throughout the state of Michigan.

The MFF provides Battle Creek Y with a grant to hire a food navigator to deliver the FMFN program. The program is designed for food navigators to help shoppers understand how to use food aid programs available on the market, such as SNAP and WIC. They also offer personalized market tours, presentations to farmers, seasonal recipes, and tips on how to prepare, cook, and store the produce shoppers buy at the market. To familiarize shoppers and encourage them to sample fruits and vegetables in season at the market, Food Navigators share Michigan Harvest of the Month™ recipes and often offer a tasting of the featured recipe. This approach familiarizes shoppers with foods they may have never tried or are having trouble figuring out how to prepare. All of these strategies are designed to serve families, build their confidence in buying and using fresh produce, help them make nutritious choices, and stretch their food budget.

In area schools, Battle Creek Y staff use the PABS program. Chrissie Szarejko is a SNAP-Ed Nutrition Educator for Battle Creek Y. She works with teachers, administrators, food service staff and local organizations to give students and their families the know-how to eat healthy all their life. Nutrition education lessons include a hands-on exploratory activity to introduce the featured fruit or vegetable, which can also connect children to horticulture or other sciences such as the science of taste.

A student participates in a Pick a better snack™ session presented by the Battle Creek Family YMCA.
“I present the interesting and fun facts about the vegetable – how do you grow it? Does it grow in Michigan or anywhere else? Where can you find it? Then we also talk about how to try a new food can be scary, or how it sometimes makes us anxious,” Szarejko says. ‘hearing.”

For example, when she introduced Brussels sprouts and radishes to children, she taught students that both vegetables belonged to the same family, asked them to hold one of each vegetable in their hands to compare them, asked to describe what the vegetables looked like and smelled like, and, finally, prompted them to taste each one. Students then vote for each new food they try.

“We talk about ‘what does it look like? What does it taste like? What does it look like? They’ll always end up trying because they’re like, ‘I want to see what it’s all about,'” Szarejko says.
One of the “red bags” of products that are sent home with PABS students.
To reinforce the PABS lessons, school food service staff feature fruits and vegetables from the lessons in school lunches. Through collaboration with the Fire Center Restaurant, students are also sent home with produce, called red bags, which include the fruits and vegetables they tasted during their lessons. The Fire Hub is owned and operated by FireKeepers Casino, and the restaurant’s mission is to promote access to good, healthy food in the Battle Creek community by partnering with the Food Bank of South Central Michigan. Some of the Fire Hub’s produce is grown in the restaurant’s greenhouse, which before the pandemic also stocked free salad bars in schools. Fire Hub Red Bags are provided to Battle Creek Public School students in all grades once a month – approximately 600 bags per week on a rotational basis. Children love to share the foods they’ve learned with their families – and parents are pleasantly surprised to see children gaining a taste for healthier foods.

“It’s a whole bag full of fresh fruits and vegetables that students can take home to their families,” says Chapman.

“They’ll say, ‘My grandma made it for dinner’ or ‘My mom bought it to put in my lunch’ after learning that their child liked and ate the food,” Szarejko adds. “It’s the most rewarding because then you know you’ve helped them expand their choices. It’s a big hurdle. In kindergarten and first grade, kids usually like to stick with chicken nuggets , grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese. So when you hear them say, ‘I went home and told my parents about radishes and my mom bought a bunch of them’, that’s encouraging.”

Students with a pile of “red bags” of products.“Expanding the palate of young children – it’s just an impressionable age. We get them to try this fresh food, to develop a comfort with – a taste for – and a knowledge of this food,” says Chapman. “Even though their family may not always be able to buy it immediately, they had it in their SNAP-Ed lesson. It was in their red bag. They took him home. All of this helps support eating behaviors throughout life.

As in many other communities, access to healthy food can be a problem for families.

“We have one of the largest breakfast food manufacturers in town [Kellogg], which is very generous, but our neighborhoods in the north of the city don’t really have grocery stores that they can access – especially from a transportation perspective,” says Boles Chapman.

The Battle Creek Y has launched a new community collaboration called the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. Because so many families rely on convenience stores for groceries and students visit them on their way home from school, convenience stores can contribute to the community by providing better access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen foods, low-fat dairy products, and whole-grain snacks. For this initiative, Battle Creek Y worked with a convenience store that high school students frequented before and after school to buy snacks. The convenience store owner agreed to drive Healthy stock, healthy store, a community-based SNAP-Ed program that can improve access to healthy foods by working with small food retailers to overcome barriers to access and the supply and demand for healthy foods. Some of the strategies include items on how to partner with and promote a convenience store, provide community outreach and education, and create community demand for healthy foods.

“Students have healthy options like carrots and hummus, yogurt parfaits and fresh fruit,” Chapman says. “They’re also making these healthy choices, which shows their self-motivation from what they’ve learned.”
A student participates in a Pick a better snack™ session presented by the Battle Creek Family YMCA.
To maintain momentum and expand the program, Battle Creek Y began working with a second convenience store using Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy.

Through its SNAP-Ed programs, Battle Creek Y breaks down barriers to generate meaningful results related to food self-sufficiency. Through PABS in Schools, they provide nutrition education to students, who in turn take this learning home. And by engaging students and their families, the Battle Creek Y promotes the local farmers market as a resource for fresh food. The Farmers Market Food Navigator sees students and their families drop by for nutrition resources and advice. Older students are making healthier choices and benefiting from changes at the convenience store. Although this work is layered and takes time and patience, they use sustainable strategies to create a healthier community.

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