The yumPower School Challenge promotes healthy eating habits at White Bear Lake Area Schools

Nutrition initiative promotes healthy eating habits in school and beyond.
Angelo To and Rae Lynn Bick nosh on some fresh fruits and vegetables for lunch at Birch Lake Elementary.

A healthy eating initiative at White Bear Lake Area Schools is getting kids excited about eating more fruits and vegetables. The yumPower School Challenge is a collaborative effort between the school district, the YMCA, HealthPartners and Children’s Hospital, and part of a wider community movement to promote healthy eating and an active lifestyle among children and families.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that less than 15 percent of children under the age of 19 consume the age-appropriate amounts of fruits and vegetables. To counteract that statistic, the yumPower School Challenge uses excitement and incentive to motivate kids to make better food choices. A school assembly kicks off the event with singing and dancing to the beat of Radio Disney tunes, and fun, interactive activities teach students about healthy eating and the importance of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Every child is provided a fruit and veggie tracker sheet, where they record their daily fruit and vegetable intake over four weeks to receive fun and healthy prizes. And to make sure the message is getting out to where kids eat many of their meals—at home—they are given information for their parents on eating healthfully, as well as some kid-approved recipes.

This past winter and spring, five elementary schools with connections to early learning were chosen to be the first yumPower School Challengers in 2013: Otter Lake Elementary School, Vadnais Heights Elementary School, Hugo and Oneka elementary schools and Birch Lake Elementary School.

“Healthy eating habits are set early in life,” says Allison Zomer, health and wellness community partnership project manager at HealthPartners and Children’s Hospital. “The sooner we can communicate the importance of healthy habits, the more successful children will be at maintaining those habits later in life.”

Jill Engwer is the mother of two children who took part in last spring’s yumPower School Challenge at Birch Lake Elementary School. “I was excited about yumPower because I think it’s important to work toward healthier eating,” says Engwer. “Fruits and vegetables are a normal thing at our house. We try to avoid processed and fast foods, but we could always do better.”

The idea behind the yumPower School Challenge is awareness. The tracker sheets prompt students and families to think about how many (or how few) fruits and vegetables they consume each day. Birch Lake Elementary School principal Tami VanOverbeke says, “We’ve received only positive feedback from parents. Some even emailed staff about how much their kids were talking about the challenge at home.”

On any given day at school, two to three fresh fruits, three fresh vegetables and one cooked vegetable are offered in the cafeteria. Students are allowed to take as much as they like. “Students make little comments in the serving line about how many fruits and vegetables they’ve eaten,” says VanOverbeke. “I love the opportunity to educate kids about healthy eating and living. YumPower is a wonderful, easy-to-implement and effective program to help kids become more aware of what they’re eating.”

A vegetable garden at Birch Lake Elementary School complements the program. Students start seeds in the classroom, and when the weather warms, the plants are transplanted outside. A sign-up sheet organizes parent volunteers to water and weed during the summer months; Christ the King Church next doro also helped by cleaning the garden in the fall. Anyone who helps take care of the garden is encouraged to harvest its bounty. “We simply ask volunteers to take only what they need so there is enough for everyone,” says Engwer.

Look for the yumPower School Challenge to be rolled out at more area schools this year. In addition, yumPower promoters are continually seeking to engage the community with creative ways to communicate healthy eating practices and increase access to fresh foods.