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Blog Banner: Why parents are thanking HealthPartners for helping their kids ‘veg out’

Why parents are thanking HealthPartners for helping their kids ‘veg out’

Each year, our PowerUp School Challenge encourages thousands of elementary students to try new veggies and fruits alongside their peers

What do the nine elementary schools in White Bear Lake, Minn. have in common with Holland, Korea and barbecue restaurants across the United States?

Cabbage salad is a dish of choice in all of them!

You may know "koolsla" originated in Holland, kimchi is its close Korean cousin, and that coleslaw commonly gets served up alongside ribs and brisket. But it may surprise you that a slaw made from purple cabbage, cucumber, celery, red pepper and yellow squash is a new school lunch favorite for kids ages 10 and under in White Bear Lake. In fact, you may very well be wondering… “How did that happen??”

The World Health Organization says eating at least five vegetables and fruits a day is the best way to be healthy and feel more energized. But kids can often be picky eaters when it comes to produce. In fact, only 40 percent of Minnesota 5th graders are eating even just one or more vegetable in their daily routines. And the stat for how many are eating at least one fruit each day isn’t much better: 52 percent.

Enter HealthPartners and our PowerUp School Challenge

Each year, a team from HealthPartners brings a whole bunch of unique produce into 60+ schools around the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. Their job? To launch a fun, three-week PowerUp School Challenge. Their goal? To get kids excited about trying and eating more vegetables and fruits.

image: PowerUp School Challenge Kickoff

PowerUp School Challenge Kickoff

At each kickoff, kids in kindergarten through 5th grade get the chance to taste five different veggies. In 2018, the veggies kids tried were the ones that make up the “PowerUp Slaw” now served in White Bear Lake Area Schools’ cafeterias. In 2017, the lineup included jicama – a starchy root of a native Mexican vine.

“I’d never heard of jicama before James and Katherine came home from school talking about how much they loved it,” says mom Tricia Humphrey, whose kids go to St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater, Minn.

Students take a class-wide “Veggie Vote” to rate which of the veggies they liked best. They are then tasked to Try for Five (that is, eat at least five fruits and veggies) each of the remaining days of the School Challenge. And parents say they’re doing it.

“My reluctant veggie eater is now sitting here not only eating his roasted veggies for dinner, but finishing off the raw veggies he got at school as part of the PowerUp School Challenge,” says mom Katie Johnson. Her son, Paul, goes to Lien Elementary School in Amery, Wis.

image: PowerUp SlawPowerUp Slaw is made with purple cabbage, cucumber, celery, red pepper and yellow squash, and your choice of three dressings. Check out the recipe!

“When you present veggies at home, it’s different than at school. Kids are more hesitant to try something new at just their parents’ urging. But when they see their peers eating them, they figure they can’t be so bad! ”

Tricia Humphrey, Stillwater mom of 2

Bryn Mawr Elementary: Going above and beyond to Try for Five

Participating in the School Challenge is completely free to schools and students. Giveaways like safe, easy-to-use kitchen gear incentivize kids to continue to Try for Five as the Challenge wears on. Teachers hang up colorful posters and use them to help kids track how they’re doing. And each and every child takes home a family recipe magazine that’s packed with simple, interactive things to do that will help them meet their goals.

With all this, excitement sweeps through classrooms during the 15 school days that the program lasts. And at Bryn Mawr Elementary in Minneapolis, that’s particularly true. Since the School Challenge launched in 2012, there have been four years when 100% of Bryn Mawr’s students have tracked the veggies and fruits they tried during all of the days of their Challenge.

How has Bryn Mawr managed to get such strong participation? Much of the credit goes to the school’s teachers, cafeteria employees and even its principal. They are fully on board and committed to the program. And similar to White Bear Lake Area Schools serving up PowerUp Slaw in school lunches, Bryn Mawr has weaved the Challenge into its breakfasts, lunches and snack program. As a result, students at the school are able to get five fruits and veggies before they even go home for dinner.

Making the healthy choice the easiest choice: Read about the School Change Index that HealthPartners helped develop.

One Bryn Mawr teacher has been an especially enthusiastic champion. Anita Chavez is a physical education teacher. And she’s one of the school’s strongest voices of encouragement.

“Before we started with PowerUp, you never heard kids talk about their fruits and veggies,” Anita says. “Now they tell me when they try something new and they liked it – like radishes! Parents are always a little surprised by it all at first, too.”

image: Students at Bryn Mawr ElementaryStudents at Bryn Mawr Elementary snack on veggies during school.

Anita works the School Challenge into her gym class curriculum. And she also tracks how all of Bryn Mawr’s classrooms are doing on their goals. After students finish logging what produce they’ve eaten, she tallies and submits the sheets to HealthPartners’ PowerUp team.

“The kids just know the program is part of our school. And new students think it is pretty cool,” Anita says.

By turning in its students’ trackers, Bryn Mawr can earn wellness dollars – as can all other participating schools. How much is awarded is based on how well everyone did with meeting their goals. The higher the completion rate, the more a school earns. The cash can be used for supplies to help boost better eating habits and activity levels.

Better eating spreads beyond schools and into the community

The PowerUp School Challenge reaches nearly 25,000 students each year. The program is active in urban and rural communities alike. And stories like this one from Amery, Wis. are widespread:

“My son, Cash, hadn’t eaten any vegetable other than a carrot in more than two years. But he came home and ate celery at supper and told me he wanted to eat red cabbage or squash the next day. This program is working and it’s amazing! I’m so grateful.”

Andrea Smith, mom of Lien Elementary School kindergartener

Indeed, 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of families have said they saw kids eating more fruits and veggies after taking part in the School Challenge. But eating habits aren’t just changing among kids.

“We’re now doing the Veggie Votes they do at school in our family,” mom Laura Peters says. “With the recipe magazine, my girls can pick out new ingredients they want to try and dishes they want to make. There’s no extra pressure on me to vet that they’re nutritious choices.”

Laura’s daughters, Mackenzie and Courtney, go to Stillwater’s St. Croix Catholic School and Rutherford Elementary School. And she says the healthy eating habits are spilling over into the church associated with St. Croix Catholic School, too.

“The school nurse has a lot of ideas on how to PowerUp the church, too,” she says. “At the annual Fun Fest, we’re trying to have healthier options for the booths. And for the cake walk, we made some fruit baskets in addition to the sweets.”

PowerUp with yummy food that’s better for you: Check out the nutritious, delicious and kid-friendly recipes that our School Challenge families love.

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