Healthy habits

MARQUETTE – Pears and cucumbers are pretty standard fair in an average American home when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

But what about plantains, kiwis or spinach? A new nutrition and physical education program implemented in schools throughout the central Upper Peninsula is hoping to add those and other fruits and vegetables to the diets of area kids.

Through a SNAP education grant, nutrition educator Rachel Sabin is able to travel to area elementary schools to teach kids about healthy living and to teach other educators how to incorporate healthy habits into their own curricula.

“It’s just such a well-rounded program because it involves students, teachers, the principal and the parents within the community,” Sabin said.

Called PE-Nut – short for physical education and nutrition – the program is run through the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Services Agency and is being offered to 10 different elementary schools in the central U.P. this school year. PE-Nut also partners with the Michigan Fitness Foundation.

As the nutrition educator, Sabin visits the schools every month, bringing samples of healthy fruits and vegetables for students in kindergarten, second and fourth grades to try as well as recipes and health newsletters for their parents to have.

“At first (the students) were a little hesitant and then if I was excited about showing them the different fruits and vegetables they were getting excited too,” Sabin said. “I think a lot of it had to do with getting to know me and be able to trust me for me to show them these foods.”

Sabin also provides classroom teachers with materials they can use in their own instruction as well as other materials that can be sent home with the kids, and attends community events to be able to interact directly with parents.

Being able to go into the schools is a great asset to the program, Sabin said.

“The kids are already in the mindset where they’re ready to learn,” Sabin said. “When they try the food in the classroom, it’s this huge social setting. They can all have this food experience … It’s a good opportunity to expose students to new foods and they can go home and tell their parents, ‘Hey, I tried this in class and I really liked it.'”

Students at North Star Academy sampled eight different fruits and vegetables Monday, ranging from the tried-and-true carrot to more exotic offerings like plantain chips and kiwis.

The fourth-graders talked excitedly as they ate their samples, with the plantain chips being the big hit of the day. While straight slices of lemon elicited plenty of puckered faces, they were probably ranked at the bottom of the day’s food list.

The biggest reaction from the group of fourth-graders as the lesson reached its end was requests for more of the samples.

North Star Elementary School Principal Tina McNeely said the entire school is in love with the program, from students to teachers to administrators. McNeely said she’s already seeing some changes in students’ lunches and in their conversations about food.

“Nutrition goes beyond just eating healthy. It helps them to be better thinkers, to do better in school, to learn more readily, to have their brains ready to accept what we’re teaching them in school,” McNeely said. “The habits that they put into place now are going to, hopefully, stay with them through adulthood.”

For more information on the program, visit michiganfitness.org/pe-nut.