I want to get on my "seed box" for a minute about a topic that shouldn't be a topic in one of the richest countries in the world - childhood hunger. Arkansas has the highest rate of childhood hunger in the nation. At the same time, approximately 38 percent of Arkansas students have been found to be overweight or at risk of being overweight each school year. My recent visit to Northwest Arkansas and the Apple Seeds afterschool program introduced me to those baffling statistics, but also made me wonder "how do we fix it?"
According to Beth Ashbaugh, executive director of Apple Seeds, it's all about community buy-in.
Apple Seeds is an after-school program based in three Fayetteville schools that focuses on creating healthy lifestyles for students and their families. School gardens, cooking, field trips, and farm-to-fork initiatives are what make healthy living come alive for these students. Their hands-on activities help teach them to make lifelong nutritious food choices and to create a sustainable food system.
"Gardening is just the catalyst to get the kids interested in something they wouldn't be likely to care about otherwise," said Lucy Kagan, an AmeriCorp VISTA volunteer and the Plant to Plate coordinator for Apple Seeds.
At Owl Creek Elementary, one of the afterschool gardening programs, there are six adult volunteers that make the program a success. They have students work in the gardens, write about what they’re seeing, cook with the ingredients that they've grown, and eat these healthy snacks.
"The organization has been growing and empowering healthy children for seven years, but we saw a huge jump in the impact of the program once we started getting more community participation," Ashbaugh said.
While Ashbaugh organizes the gardens and shows kids how to plant, she says that it's the knowledge of the other program leaders that truly brings that information to life. A local chef teaches the students' parents how to cook simple, healthy meals, the 5th grade science teacher uses the gardens as a lab for the students, and the school nurse instructs the kids on fitness and healthy living choices.
"Our mission can go so much farther when other people, especially experts, offer their skills," Ashbaugh said. "One of our goals is to find community partners that we can set up with the resources that they need and support them. They, in turn, support these kids."
Kagan's goal is for every child to know where his or her food comes from, and she thinks the program is making that a reality.
"The change in attitudes that you see from kids after three weeks of working in a garden is amazing," she said. "There's an attitude of positive peer pressure with 'who can eat the weirdest thing' and the students see a connection with their bodies and what they eat. You never know what will lead kids to make better eating choices in the future, but it's happening here every day."
Just witnessing the program in action was an inspiration, but like Kagan and Ashbaugh pointed out, "there's something like this in every community- it's going mainstream now."
"People are looking for alternatives. The economy is weak, we have more access to information about good foods versus bad foods, and people want to know about and cook their own food. They just need a little guidance and advice, and we can do that."
I encourage you to reach out to these types of programs in your own community. You never know how your skills might help create healthier lives.