Getting kids to eat their veggies: USU first in the country to try innovative 'Food Dudes' nutrition program

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 8:13 p.m. MDT

Students attend a Food Dudes assembly at Providence Elementary School in Providence, Cache County, on Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. Utah State University is the first organization to initiate the Food Dudes nutrition program schoolwide in the United States after the program helped change the diet habits of school children in the United Kingdom.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVIDENCE, Cache County — Madeline Cook can't really put her finger on it, but the thought of eating broccoli makes her nose scrunch up in distaste. "I don't really like broccoli because … I really don't know," said the 8-year-old Providence Elementary School.

Any parent at a dinner table is familiar with the age-long negotiation with their children to get them to eat fruits and vegetables. At times the bargaining can be as intense as any Middle-East peace negotiation.

But a Utah State University researcher is hoping that a program started in England will help change the attitudes of U.S. kids toward eating healthier foods.

The Food Dudes program was created by a psychology professor at Bangor University in North Wales, United Kingdom. "I started it because I noticed children had switched off eating fruits and vegetables and had switched over to largely junk diets," said professor Fergus Lowe.

Lowe said obesity among children is a global crisis. "It's actually the biggest public health problem of our time. Obesity is a huge issue worldwide. There are now more people who are overweight and obese than there are underfed," he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three Americans is obese, as are 17 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 19. In Utah, nearly 10 percent of children are considered obese.

Fruits and vegetables, have had to compete for the attention of more glitzy processed foods, like cartoon character cookies, "Cheez" with crackers and candy snacks — much of it high in sugar and fat.

The Food Dudes program takes a three-step approach for kids 6 to 11 years old. First, samples of fruits and vegetables are brought in for kids to taste. Second, they become part of a peer program which encourages kids to see eating healthier foods as a popular thing to do. The final part is that kids are rewarded by being given small prizes for eating all of their fruits and vegetables during lunch.

A year into the program, consumption of fruits and vegetables among English school kids jumped as high as 90 percent in some schools. The program impressed Irish school officials so much that the program was adopted in all Irish schools a few years ago. Even more impressive was that a follow-up study showed Food Dudes students carried better eating habits into high school.

The results caught the eye of USU senior dietitian, Sheryl Aguilar. "We actually change the culture of the school so that it's cool to bring fruits and vegetables to school for lunch," she said. An initial pilot study of one Cache County class showed that the Food Dudes program increased eating of fruit by 40 percent and vegetables by 44 percent over just a four-month period.

Those results caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has given the program a total of $500,000 in grants to study the possibility of introducing the Food Dudes program to more schools in the U.S. Aguilar is collaborating with researchers Heidi Wengreen and Greg Madden on this study.

USU will conduct a one-year study in six elementary schools in the Cache County School District. During that time, researchers will introduce one fruit and one vegetable to kids at lunchtime. Each student's tray will be photographed before and after they are finished eating to record what they ate, how much, and what they threw in the trash.

Aguilar said the classic parent argument of "eat it, it's good for you," doesn't work because it creates a negative view of healthy foods. By giving kids a chance to taste the food and decide if they like it among peers, it can create a lasting attitude change.

One of those schools is Providence Elementary, where kids on Friday played with orange slices by sticking them in their mouths and smiling, trading laughs. They said they liked pizza, spaghetti and cheeseburgers for lunch, but seemed willing to try healthier foods. Keste Peterson, 8, said he enjoyed both the broccoli and orange slices given out at lunch. "I loved it!" he said.

"The broccoli was yucky but the oranges were good," said 8-year-old Jade Jensen.

Hally Miller, 6, is on the fence with broccoli. "I really don't like the taste, but I still eat them because I want to be healthy. I plug my nose when I eat them."

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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