By Julie Slama | [email protected]
This fall, Copperview and East Midvale students will take part in a nine-week game where they watch videos at lunch to increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.
Rewind. The videos help increase their consumption of healthy foods?
Utah State University Profession of Nutrition Heidi Wengreen said that in the seven elementary schools in Logan and Cache school districts who have piloted the program, the amount of fruits and vegetables have significantly increased.
“Students in those schools have doubled their intake of vegetables during the period of study,” she said, adding that the increased level has stayed above the baseline data that was taken before the program began. “If we leave it to the kids, 70% of kids choose to not eat any vegetables over multiple days. With the program, we hope that students will find some they like.”
Fast forward. How does it work?
Already, program coordinators hired by USU are at each school and are collecting data of how many vegetables are going uneaten.
“As part of the national school lunch program, each lunch has to have a fruit or vegetable on their tray. However, that’s the issue. You can provide them, but you can’t force the students to eat them. So, if they’re provided and not eaten, then they’re wasted,” Wengreen said.
From there, a sliding scale will be created with the approach to have student increase their intake “a little bit” each day, she said.
After the initial data, students can watch a two-minute science-fiction story in the cafeteria as they eat lunch. They will see the heroes of the story, the FITS, attempt to find and capture the villainous VATS or vegetable annihilation team, who are trying to destroy vegetation in the fictional universe. The episode will loop during the lunch period so students can see it multiple times if they are in line for their food.
“As kids eat more vegetables each day, they will see the FITS use special powers when they eat special vegetables so they can capture the VATS. Each day they meet their vegetable intake, they can watch another episode of the story,” Wengreen said. “When students buy into it, the FITS influence the school so it’s cool to eat vegetables.”
However, if the school doesn’t meet the goal, they have a message from the FITS that asks them to eat more vegetables.
“We target vegetables as it’s harder for kids to try and eat. Fruit usually comes along with the vegetables,” she said. “It’s a motivation for them to try the vegetables and see if it will help them to create a life-long change to healthy eating.”
As a result of eating healthier, students are less at risk for being overweight, suffering from obesity and chronic disease.
Pause. Why were these two schools selected to pilot the program?
Since Wengreen and USU Behavior Economics Professor Greg Madden created the program about five years ago, it has gone through several modifications during each pilot test. However, this is the first time the FIT Game has extended to schools outside of Cache and Logan school districts.
“We chose these schools because they have more diverse populations, and we’d like this program to extend to schools all over the country so we need to make sure its inviting to all students,” she said.
While the characters in the videos only speak English, Wengreen said that the comic book format makes it easy for students to follow the storyline. They also worked with video game producers and artists to create the characters so any kids can relate to them and be able to understand their goal.
Wengreen said that they also are analyzing if the program needs to be longer than nine weeks—two weeks are used to collect baseline data and seven weeks are to encourage more vegetable consumption—as well as possibly adding a home component to the program.
“Our research shows us that so far, this is helping kids make healthier food choices and for us, the most efficient way to target kids is at schools, but we’re looking to see if we need to be more community and home based as well,” she said.
Play. In mid-September, Copperview began the seven weeks of the FIT program after collecting its baseline data.
“We weigh our vegetables before and after lunch so we know how much fruits and vegetables the students’ intake,” said Jenna Landward, Copperview community school facilitator.
Landward said that day, students could choose from broccoli and cooked carrots as well as grapes, cranberries and applesauce. They needed to take at least one fruit and one vegetable, but could take more if they liked. For those who were served cooked carrots, Landward said only about 1/3 of them were consumed.
“In general, kids waste food. Not every kid eats a solid meal, but education is important and we want to encourage them to eat fruit and vegetables,” she said.
In October, East Midvale students will have the opportunity to watch the FIT Game videos, said Shelley McCall, East Midvale community school facilitator.
“With our demographics, we want to encourage our students to start with healthy habits now and establish that pattern so they maintain them,” she said.
Nutrition manager Joanna Hougland and her staff offer a variety of produce for students on a given day— cantaloupe, bananas, cucumbers, apple slices, pineapple, honeydew—and “make it look colorful and appealing.”
However, she realizes that doesn’t always mean students are eating them.
“Often kids will get wrapped up talking and the majority will only take one bite,” she said. “This program is designed to be a fun way to encourage them to eat more.”
Principal Matt Nelson agrees.
“So much food is thrown away, so this may motivate kids to try new things, expand their horizons, so they will feel better and have more energy if they eat a healthier lunch,” he said. “It will be fun and add a different element to our student body. Together, we can be aware of food wasted and have a goal to eat more fruits and vegetables.”