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Red Pine students explore food options

Ashlyn Carruthers seems uncertain about her fruit kabob.1 / 2
Red Pine Elementary School kindergarten students got to make and taste fruit kabobs last week as part of the school's Food Explorers program.2 / 2

If you want kids to develop good eating habits, it helps to start early. Get kids excited about fruits and vegetables when they're young, and that tendency to choose an apple over a bag of chips at snacktime carries through to later life.

That's the idea behind a new program implemented this year at Red Pine Elementary School. Called Food Explorers, the pilot program developed by the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation offers kindergarten and first grade students lessons about the benefits of healthy eating, then teaches them to make a recipe they can bring home and share with the rest of their family.

Earlier this year, that meant assembling a fruit-and-yogurt parfait. Last week, students speared chunks of fresh fruit on wooden sticks to make fruit kabobs.

Asked at the end of last week's lesson who had fun, every student raised his or her hand.

"The kids have just been ecstatic," Red Pine principal Gary Anger said.

Red Pine is one of two schools in the state piloting the Food Explorers program. It was chosen because the school has developed a reputation over the years for putting a priority on keeping kids fit and healthy. Red Pine was one of the pioneers in the state of what is known as the Safe Routes to School program - finding ways to encourage students to bike or walk to school rather than get a ride -- and a health and wellness committee at the school plans regular outings outside of the school day to encourage families to go roller skating, or skiing or otherwise stay active. Later this school year Red Pine will hold its fourth annual health and wellness fair.

"Part of what we try to do here at Red Pine is make sure our kids are healthy, because we know if they're healthy they'll learn more," Anger said.

That fits right in with what the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation was trying to accomplish. With new guidelines this year for school lunches, the group wanted to find ways to ease students into the idea that they might enjoy eating foods that are good for them. It's a kind of positive peer pressure: kids see all of their classmates chomping on a piece of honeydew or pineapple, so they want to try it, too.

"We're just trying to create that environment where other kids are supporting other kids," said Teresa Ambroz, community education manager for the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

The foundation hired someone to write curriculum for the program and worked with Red Pine and Bloomington's Oak Grove Elementary to shape the lessons. All of the teachers who go over the lessons with students are volunteers. Some are parents or grandparents trained for the program. One is a graduate student who was looking for experience in the classroom.

On Wednesday last week, two of those volunteer teachers spoke with kindergarten students about different kinds of fruits and vegetables. The students, wearing paper chefs' hats with their names spelled out in crayon, tried to identify fruits in every color of the rainbow. They talked about fruits they like.

Then, they sat down at their tables and put pieces of watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and other fruits onto kabob sticks. When they were done, it was time for a snack. The kids didn't like all of the fruit they had in front of them, but most of them at least gave everything a try.

For their last lesson later this month, the Red Pine students will learn to make a spinach salad, though Ambroz said they are avoiding the word spinach. They're just calling them salad greens in case students come in with a preconceived notion about the vegetable.

Anger said he's been happy so far with the response to the program. After the yogurt parfait lesson earlier this year, one first grader whose mother is a teacher at the school insisted on stopping on the way home to buy blueberries so he could make the snack for the rest of the family.

Anger expects the program to expand in future years, either to more grades or to other schools.

"I think it's been very, very positive," Ambroz said.