Madalyn Ruggiero  /  AP file
Farmer Bob Jones, left, shows children some crops in a field at the The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, on Wednesday, Aug. 16, during a program that encourages children to eat more veggies.
updated 9/18/2006 12:14:58 PM ET 2006-09-18T16:14:58

Bobby Jones hopped off his John Deere tractor and herded a dozen children over to a row of cherry tomato plants.

“You can’t come to the farm without picking a tomato and eating one that’s warm from the sun,” he told the kids.

A few backed away. Most, though, pulled the bite-sized bulbs off the vine and popped them in their mouths. “It was sweet,” said a surprised 7-year-old Emily Hutlock of Lorain.

That’s the reaction Jones was hoping for.

And it’s the idea behind “Veggie U,” an effort that began a year ago which encourages children to appreciate and enjoy healthier food. The kids at Jones’ farm were getting just a one-day seminar. But the program is usually taught over five weeks in the classroom — 125 at last count — in 21 states. Organizers expect it to reach 500 classrooms by the end of the school year.

“It’s amazing to see how kids react to being out in nature,” said Jones, wearing blue coveralls, a white shirt and a red bow tie. “If we can just encourage them to plant a garden, even a few tomatoes.”

Mixed results
The hope is that encouraging children to eat broccoli and carrots will help curb childhood obesity.

“If they have a choice between an apple and a Snickers bar, hopefully they’ll think about it and weigh out their options,” said Kelly Bohn, a fourth-grade teacher at Townsend Elementary School in Vickery.

The course changed her students’ opinions about what they eat. “I had students come up to me and say they were trying to eat veggies during lunch,” she said.

About a third of kids in America are overweight, according to the federal government. That has led to other efforts promoting vegetables in schools.

The results have been mixed.

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A three-year study released a year ago found kid-friendly training in good nutrition got children to eat healthier. Another showed what works best is using computers and hands-on learning.

But a study released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found giving kids more vegetables in five Mississippi schools didn’t translate to healthier eating.

“What you want to do is involve them in growing it and involve them in cooking it,” said Alice Ammerman, director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “You have to find creative ways to get kids to try things.”

'A lasting impact'
The Jones family wouldn’t divulge how much is spent on Veggie U, a nonprofit organization backed by private donors and a grant from Birds Eye Foods Inc. All course materials have been given free to participating schools.

Each classroom kit costs $400 and includes a grow light, potting soil, lettuce seeds and a course curriculum. During the final week, students create a salad with their lettuce. What students like most is getting their hands dirty and watching their plants grow.

“Every morning they’d come in and check their plants,” said Lois Lindsey, who taught the class last year in Allen, Texas.

Bing Yoo, a doctor in Sandusky, and her husband sponsored Veggie U at her daughter’s school, because they decided “the most important thing we can teach them is to eat healthy,” she said.

Veggie U grew out of a conversation about childhood obesity among chefs visiting the Jones’ farm in northern Ohio. The farm sells rare and heirloom vegetables to chefs at the world’s premier restaurants.

Barb Jones, who helps run the farm along with her husband, Bob Jones Sr., and their sons, brought together about 20 teachers who spent a year and a half creating a curriculum. The students learn about soil, composting, seed structure, nutrients and plant anatomy.

“It’s exciting when parents say their children are asking for fruit and vegetables,” said Libby Davis, who helped write the curriculum. “It will have a lasting impact.”

About 20 chefs from around the country cooked at a fundraiser for Veggie U in July. Bob Waggoner, owner of the Charleston Grill in Charleston, S.C., said money is all that is keeping the concept from growing.

“It could be a huge wake-up call,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about this ridiculous state of overweight kids in this country.”

Harvey Christie, a chef who sells jams and jellies in Romney, W.Va., helped children visiting the farm use fresh fruits and vegetables to create a tasty lunch. “This is better than candy,” he said, holding up a fresh melon.

The menu for his class in August included baked fish with vegetables and carrot cake. The kids — from ages 6 to 12 — made it all.

Eleven-year-old Timothy Thomas, of Norwalk, carefully seasoned his fish with salt and pepper, but he wasn’t too sure about adding strips of zucchini and squash. “I’m a picky, picky eater,” he said.

Still, he enjoyed learning about vegetables. “It’s cool to see where it comes from,” he said.

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