By: Kate Olender, Senior Director, Health & Wellness, United Fresh Produce Association
To many kids, fruits and veggies are reserved for meals, while candy and sugary desserts are offered as a reward for finishing homework or chores. But at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in Muskogee, OK, fresh fruit is the treat.
With funding from the United Fresh Start Foundation, Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, the nonprofit organization that runs programming through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, offers kids a grab bag filled with three “surprise” pieces of fruit every Friday. The grab bags help ensure the kids have access to fresh produce over the weekend, which is especially important because many of the kids who attend their after-school program are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and may struggle to eat healthy at home.
The grab bags were initiated by Portia Reed, the kitchen manager at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, and Laura Hazen, the program manager at Neighbors Building Neighborhoods. “The kids love it,” Laura says about the grab bags. “They think it’s fun and they get into the mindset that fruit can be a treat – a treat they take home on Fridays!” she adds.
The grab bags are an especially creative way to encourage fresh, healthy eating, considering the program doesn’t focus on food. Unlike many food-access initiatives supported by United Fresh Start Foundation community grants, fresh fruits and vegetables play a supporting role in Community Center’s after-school program. Rather, the kids rush through the door shortly after school lets out, have a quick meal, and pull books and pencils out of their backpacks. Certified teachers are there to help with homework, tutoring, and test preparation, which remains the focus on the center.
The focus on academic success is what motivated Portia and Laura to think about how to serve kids fresh, healthy food. After all, they know that eating well helps kids learn. In addition to the grab bags, the program serves fruit and vegetable snacks throughout the week. The produce snacks are selected to be “grab and go,” reinforcing to the kids that they can eat fresh even when they’re busy and even without an adult to help prepare.
“Fun Fruit Fridays” helps to teach the students about nutrition and how to make a healthy snack. Kids then head home for the weekend, with a brain full of knowledge and a bag full of fruit.
Through Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center’s After School Program serves as a good reminder that access to fresh fruits and vegetables can be incorporated into any kind of program, even if the program doesn’t focus on food.