As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, diabetes and obesity are major problems in Native American communities. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’re featuring several of our very own PreventObesity.net Leaders and Supporters who are working to help Native American children become healthier.
We recently heard from a PreventObesity.net Leader who is in her first year of a program called FoodCorps―a “nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy.” Olivia DeJohn works with two school districts on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana.
One of the things that has surprised Olivia the most is the enthusiasm children have for trying out new recipes chock-full of fresh vegetables, after learning more about plants and nutrition.
Out of the 125 kids she works with at one school, only one didn’t want to try the recipes: “At first, I was kind of shocked and taken back by it because she was about the 100th kid at that point, but then I realized I should probably be taken back in astonishment that roughly 124 other kids did take all the fruit and vegetables,” she recalls.
Another successful initiative was helping a cafeteria host “Montana-Made Meal Day” with all locally grown foods. She has also hosted an assembly for the students to participate in Montana Crunch Time (a statewide celebration of Food Day and National Farm to School Month featuring locally grown apples) and worked to secure funding for the expansion of a middle school garden.
“I’d say my biggest challenge has been when I have to tell kids to stop eating their vegetables! Really! Even just the other day I had so many kids ask if they could go back to make seconds and I had to say no because we ran out of vegetables,” she jokes.
There are other tougher barriers to her work, too. Olivia notes that the politics of schools, school lunches and budgets are big challenges. Costs of food and labor, schools being understaffed and the risk of children not liking the foods purchased for their lunches all contribute to the fact that introducing fresh, local foods can be a gamble.
Olivia has been working to find ways to alleviate at least one of those stressors: Making sure the children will eat what they’re served. “You have to be sure kids will like it and eat it more than the highly processed things they’re used to eating outside of school,” she explains. To that end, she promotes taste tests during lunchtime to find out what items students would eat if they were added to the menus. She has noticed that if students have already seen a food item, they may be less apprehensive about putting it on their trays.
Even with the challenges, Olivia loves the work she’s doing with FoodCorps to help children, and is excited to see how her involvement could influence their futures: “I am fortunate enough to get to work with hilarious, smart, heart-warming children and perhaps turn them into future farmers, cooks, or even just healthy eaters.”