Battle Creek Family YMCA changes palates one vegetable at a time

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

When Battle Creek Family YMCA staff looked at the challenges facing their community, the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables topped the list. Many families the organization serves noted there were few grocery stores offering fresh produce nearby. And with tight food budgets, they also expressed caution about spending their limited dollars on fresh foods they weren’t familiar with preparing — especially produce that could spoil more quickly than shelf-stable items.

“I think our challenges are probably like those of other similar communities,” says Kelly Boles Chapman, community outreach director for the Battle Creek Family YMCA. “Many of the residents think fresh, healthy food is more expensive.”

To serve the community, the Battle Creek Y implemented Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Farmers Market Food Navigator (FMFN) program at the Battle Creek Farmers Market. They also use the Pick a better snack™ (PABS) program to introduce children in kindergarten through third grade to fresh fruits and vegetables. PABS also has a component called Play Your Way One Hour a Day to inspire kids to be active 60 minutes a day.

The programs are made possible through MFF Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

MFF provides the Battle Creek Y with the grant funding to hire a Food Navigator to deliver the FMFN program. The program is designed for Food Navigators to help shoppers understand how to use the food assistance programs available at market, like SNAP and WIC. They also provide personalized market tours, introductions to the farmers, seasonal recipes, and tips about how to prepare, cook, and store the produce shoppers purchase at the market. To familiarize shoppers with and encourage them to try fruits and vegetables when they are in season at the market, Food Navigators share Michigan Harvest of the Month™ recipes and often provide a tasting of the featured recipe. This approach acquaints shoppers with foods they may have never tried or struggle with knowing how to prepare. All of these strategies are designed to serve families, build their confidence in buying and using fresh produce, help them make nutritious choices, and stretch their food budget. 

In area schools, Battle Creek Y staff use the PABS program. Chrissie Szarejko serves as the SNAP-Ed nutrition educator for the Battle Creek Y. She collaborates with teachers, administrators, food service staff, and local organizations to give students and their families the know-how needed to eat healthy for a lifetime. Nutrition education lessons include a hands-on exploratory activity to introduce the featured fruit or vegetable, which can also connect children to horticulture or other science such as the science of taste.

A student participates in a Pick a better snack™ session presented by the Battle Creek Family YMCA.
“I present the vegetable’s interesting and fun facts — how do you grow it? Does it grow in Michigan or elsewhere? Where can you find it? Then we also talk about how trying a new food can be scary, or how it makes us anxious at times,” Szarejko says. “I get around that by introducing it as if they are scientists using their five senses – sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing.”

For example, when introducing the children to brussels sprouts and radishes, she taught the students that the two vegetables were in the same family, had the students hold one of each vegetable in their hands to compare them, asked them to describe what the vegetables looked like and smelled like, and, last of all, prompted them to taste each one. Students then vote on each new food they try.

“We talk about, 'What does it look like? What does it taste like? What does it sound like?' They'll always end up trying it because they're thinking, ‘I want to see what this is all about,'" Szarejko says.

One of the "red bags" of produce that are sent home with PABS students.To reinforce the PABS lessons, school food service staff feature the fruits and vegetables from the lessons in school lunches. Through a collaboration with the Fire Hub Restaurant, students are also sent home with produce, known as red bags, that include the fruits and vegetables they tasted during their lessons. The Fire Hub is owned and operated by the FireKeepers Casino, and the restaurant’s mission is to support access to good, healthy food in the Battle Creek community by partnering with the Food Bank of South Central Michigan. Some of the Fire Hub produce is grown in the restaurant’s greenhouse, which, pre-pandemic, also stocked free salad bars at the schools. Fire Hub’s red bags are provided to Battle Creek Public School students in all grades once a month – about 600 bags per week on a rotating basis. The kids enjoy sharing the foods they learned about with their families – and parents are happily surprised to see kids acquire a taste for healthier foods.

“It's quite a bag – full of fresh fruits and fresh vegetables that students get to take home to their families,” Chapman says.

“They'll say, ‘My grandma fixed it for dinner,’ or ‘My mom bought it to put in my lunch,’ after learning their child liked and ate the food," Szarejko adds. "This is the most rewarding because then you know you have helped them expand their choices. That's a big hurdle. In kindergarten and first grade, kids generally like to stick to chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, and macaroni and cheese. So, when you hear them say, ‘I went home and told my parents about radishes and my mom bought a bunch of them,’ that's encouraging.”

Students with a pile of "red bags" of produce.
“Expanding the palates of young kids – it’s just an impressionable age. We get them to try that fresh food, develop a comfort with – a taste for – and a knowledge of that food,” Chapman says. “Even if their family isn't always in a position to immediately buy it, they had it in their SNAP-Ed lesson. It was in their red bag. They took it home. That all helps to support lifelong eating behaviors.”
Like many other communities, access to healthy food can be an issue for families.

“We have one of the largest breakfast food manufacturers in town [Kellogg], which is very generous, but our neighborhoods in the north part of town don't really have any grocery stores they can access - especially from a transportation standpoint," Boles Chapman says.

The Battle Creek Y started a new community collaboration called the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. Because so many families rely on corner stores for groceries and students frequent them on their way home from school, corner stores can contribute to the community by providing greater access to healthy foods, such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grain snacks. For this initiative, the Battle Creek Y worked with a corner store that high school students frequented before and after school to buy snacks. The corner store owner agreed to pilot Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy, a community-based SNAP-Ed program that can improve access to healthy foods by working with small food retailers to address access barriers as well as supply and demand for healthy foods. Some of the strategies include components on how to partner with and promote a corner store, provide community outreach and education, and build community demand for healthy foods.

“The students have healthy options like carrots and hummus, yogurt parfaits, and fresh fruit,” Chapman says. “They are making those healthy choices too, which shows self-motivation from what they’ve learned.”
A student participates in a Pick a better snack™ session presented by the Battle Creek Family YMCA.
To keep the momentum going and expand the program, the Battle Creek Y has begun working with a second corner store using Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy.

Through their SNAP-Ed programs, the Battle Creek Y is addressing barriers to generate purposeful outcomes related to food autonomy. Through PABS in the schools, they are providing nutrition education to the students, who in turn bring that learning home. And through engaging the students and their families, the Battle Creek Y promotes the local farmers market as a resource for fresh food. The Food Navigator at the Farmers Market is seeing the students and their families drop by for nutrition resources and tips. The older students are making healthier choices and benefiting from the changes made at the corner store. While this work is layered and takes time and patience, they are using sustainable strategies to create a healthier community.
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