New program for healthy kids

Published 9:40 pm Thursday, May 18, 2017

Volunteers helped bring an initiative for healthy living to a Suffolk child care center this week.

Members of The Planning Council were joined by the Obici Healthcare Foundation and other community partners for construction of a new garden for the Suffolk Head Start Children’s Center on Thursday.

Volunteers built a raised garden bed for soil, compost and a variety of summer plants and vegetables.

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The garden is one of several at child care facilities throughout Suffolk as part of the Farm2Childcare program.

“Our goal is to make sure children understand how to make healthy food choices, and know where good food comes from,” said Shelley Barlow, garden coordinator for HealthySuffolk, one of the Farm2Childcare community partners.

Eight pre-kindergarten children at the center helped prepare the garden bed for cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash and basil. Marigolds were also planted to ward off insects.

The garden will be maintained by the children with the help of volunteers from local organizations, such as The Experience Church on Pruden Boulevard.

“I think this is a really great program,” said Kenya Moore, wife of Experience Church Pastor John Moore III. “There are some people that don’t have access to affordable, healthy options to eat.”

A body mass index assessment for children ages 2 to 5 in Western Tidewater child care programs revealed that of 681 children, 32 percent were considered overweight or obese. These children are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, leading to health risks such as diabetes and heart disease.

Farm2Childcare — the first program of its kind in Virginia — encourages children to develop healthy lifestyles with fresh fruits and vegetables. Their approach is designed to decrease childhood obesity while simultaneously benefitting the local economy.

“We developed a capacity in childhood education and nutrition, and we put those together for Food2Childcare,” said Angela Kellam, president and chief executive officer of The Planning Council.

She said the Council has been improving child eating habits for years as a sponsor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA has granted $12 million to childcare providers through the Planning Council, based on rigorous requirements for healthy habits.

Obici Healthcare Foundation provides funds for Farm2Childcare as the Planning Council coordinates with childcare providers, churches, local businesses, garden centers and farmers in Western Tidewater.

“They bring all these wonderful connections with these different organizations,” Obici Healthcare Foundation program officer Diane Nelms said.

Farm2Childcare was launched in 2014 as a three-pronged effort of education, gardening and procurement. Children are taught healthy eating alternatives to fast food at a very early age, at a point where they are developing lifelong habits.

“It’s so important to start this at an early age,” Nelms said.

The program encourages locally grown fruits and vegetables from community farmers, instead of larger grocery stores. These farmers then become vendors for local schools and childcare providers.

“It creates this micro-economy for the farmers,” Kellam said

This holistic approach comes full circle when the children plant fruits and vegetables in their own gardens. The Children’s Center kids on Thursday enjoyed getting their hands dirty while planting the food that will eventually end up on their plates.

“They will all sit together and try their own eggplant that they grew,” Kellam said.

She said 21 other sites in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake already educate children on healthier eating habits through this program. She hopes that this will get the attention of state officials and aid in efforts to improve school cafeteria menus.

“We’re hoping that the work here will influence the state decision-makers to launch a pilot of Farm2School,” Kellam said.