Vegetable Extravaganza gives kids taste of better eating, fitness

Representatives of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, San Antonio ISD and office of State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, plus Washington Elementary School principal Mae Olison and several schoolchildren, display the $10,000 check presented by AgriLife Extension for the school's ongoing obesity prevention project. (Texas AgiLife Extension Service photo)

SAN ANTONIO — Eat your vegetables! This phrase has been spoken to schoolchildren by generations of parents and teachers, usually with mixed results.

However, Booker T. Washington Elementary school in the San Antonio Independent School District has been partnering with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service to develop fun and interesting ways to get kids to eat their vegetables – plus build good habits and character traits.

In early June, the school held a half-day Vegetable Extravaganza involving the entire student body of more than 500 students. The school’s cheerleading squad performed a special cheer about the benefits of eating vegetables, and students from each grade level accompanied their teachers to different “education stations” where they learned about and sampled vegetables.

During the event, dozens of students joined teachers, parents and visitors in a Zumba exercise class held in the school’s gymnasium. They also toured the school’s vegetable garden, consisting of 10 raised beds where students have been growing various vegetables, including cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans and radishes, as well as some flowers.

“Since the end of 2010, we’ve been helping the teachers and students build these raised gardens with the help of our Bexar County Master Gardener volunteers,” said Brady Yecker, AgriLife Extension youth gardens program coordinator. “The kids have been very involved in the gardening and enjoy tending the plants.”

“My favorite part was going into the garden and seeing and touching all the vegetables there,” said fifth-grader Jose Hernandez. “I also learned how you make pickles out of cucumbers, and I didn’t know that before.”

Hernandez said after his experiences at the Vegetable Extravaganza he planned to eat more vegetables and do so more regularly.

“Kids are a lot like plants,” said Mae Olison, Washington Elementary principal, who emceed event. “You’ve got to tend them and nurture them to help them grow. And if you help them grow up right, some day they’ll pass that on to the next generation.”

The Vegetable Extravaganza began with a press conference featuring Olison; board member Ruben Cuero; Marge Reyna, district office manager for State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon; and Lupe Landeros, county director for AgriLife Extension in Bexar County.

During the press conference, each of the speakers emphasized the seriousness of the issue of child obesity both in Texas and throughout the U.S.

“Currently, one in three schoolchildren in this country is overweight or obese,” Reyna said. “Unattended, excess weight and lack of exercise could lead to chronic disease problems such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart and respiratory issues.”

At the conclusion of the press conference, Landeros presented Olison with a ceremonial check for $10,000 from AgriLife Extension for its various anti-obesity and pro-fitness efforts at the school.

She said AgriLife Extension had chosen Washington Elementary as one of eight schools throughout Texas to implement an obesity prevention project, and that the original funding source was federal dollars from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The funds were awarded to the Texas Department of State Health Services and AgriLife Extension and our agency selected the schools to receive funds,” Landeros said. “We chose Washington due to its location, limited access to community resources, student demographics  and population size, and the willingness of school administrators, staff and teachers to work with our agency.”

She added that the funding supports schools as “central community hubs” for activities related to better nutrition and free physical activity, such as community gardens, farm-to-school programs and providing after-school recreational opportunities for children and adults. She also noted that the school would be participating in AgriLife Extension’s annual Walk Across Texas fitness event.

Dr. Connie Sheppard, AgriLife Extension family and consumer sciences agent for Bexar County, noted that she and her staff had been providing educational programming at Washington Elementary since early 2011.

“We’ve come to Washington Elementary several times to talk to teachers about how to teach students about nutritious snacking, healthy eating habits and the importance of a balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables,” Sheppard said. “Other future anti-obesity project activities will focus on nutrition and getting the proper amount of exercise.”

“This has been a great project and you can see that in the enthusiasm the kids have for it,” said Cuero. “Participating in activities like the one’s today gets them excited and gives them a chance to learn more about nature in an urban environment, and that’s important for them.”

“It’s important that we address the issue of overeating and lack of exercise early on so our children can develop better habits and grow to be more fit for life,” Reyna said. “This program is giving kids the chance to get a better start.”

San Antonio ISD administration added that “a health lifestyle plays a major role in providing students with a positive environment in the classroom,” and “SAISD is a strong advocate of healthy nutrition and activity, and the partnership at Washington Elementary School is a great opportunity for the students.”

“We’re glad to have the chance to cooperate with Washington Elementary in this worthwhile program,” said Landeros. “And it’s great to have our AgriLife Extension staff and Master Gardner and Master Wellness volunteers and parent volunteers from Washington all working together on this worthwhile project.”

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