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Preschoolers Learn Hands-On Farming to Prevent Childhood Obesity in Hispanic and Low-Income Families

Posted: November 13, 2017

As childhood obesity soars among low-income communities with limited access to fresh produce, some educators in Colorado are combating the problem by joining the farm-to-preschool movement. Now these preschoolers are learning their ABCs while picking veggies from the school garden and preparing healthy meals. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.

Children in this Pueblo, Colorado, preschool are learning the ABCs of locally grown produce.  Vegetables take center stage in everything from the vocabulary they learn to the art they create and the plays they perform.

Brittany Martens is the nutrition educator for a new preschool program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called CHOP, an acronym for Cooking up Healthy Options with Plants.  It’s an effort by the Colorado Health Department to combat childhood obesity with hands-on farming. And it’s part of a growing farm-to-preschool movement in early education centers.

Brittany Martens says "We want to take these things from the garden and make it a norm on their plate, so it’s not like an alien. It’s no longer the hated squash. It’s now something that they have grown, they have picked, they have harvested, and they’re going to be more willing to try it."

One in five Colorado children ages 2 to 4 are obese. The problem is particularly pronounced in low-income and heavily Hispanic communities, like the neighborhood that surrounds Pueblo’s East Side Child Care Center.

"Over 80 percent of the children that come here are from low-income family households, between 70 percent and 80 percent with a Hispanic heritage," shares Maria Subia, the center's director.

Health officials hope early exposure to vegetables will lead children away from high-calorie processed food linked to obesity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of obese children remain obese into adolescence, and 75 percent of adolescents go on to become obese adults, facing increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. Nicole Cawrse, who manages the Women, Infants, and Children program, known as WIC, in Pueblo says "The chance of becoming an obese adult substantially increases once you hit the age of 8."

But for families that live near Pueblo’s East Side Child Care Center, buying fresh and nutritious food isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t own a car. David Hovar, from the nonprofit NeighborWorks Southern Colorado, is working to connect Pueblo’s East Side residents with fresh produce, after their only grocery store was shuttered more than a year ago.

For parents and educators, the new gardens are also an opportunity for learning that goes beyond nutrition.  Fawn Montoya says planting has taught her daughter, Cecilia, new math concepts at an early age. On this day, Montoya taught children how to grind corn with a stone metate, a process she hopes will connect children to history, as well as their own Mexican heritage.

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