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Sonoma County preschoolers go hands-on with veggies

The 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds were tasting … turnips. And they were enthusiastic.

This alternate universe was the North Bay Children’s Center preschool at McDowell Elementary School on Tuesday morning. The young students had planted the root vegetable - not known widely as a children’s favorite - in a long winter garden butted up against a cyclone fence and held in by retaining bricks. Now, they were experiencing it.

“I take them through the process, from seed to plant. That really excites them,” garden educator Lisa Bianchi said. “We touch it, we smell it, we listen to it. If we’re really brave, we lick it. And if we like it, we eat it.”

With a $94,580 federal grant, North Bay Children’s Center, a nonprofit operator of six Sonoma County preschools, has bolstered its nutrition education curriculum with a program built on local farms and gardening, designed to foster healthier eating habits and a greater understanding of where fresh food comes from.

“It weaves a culture of health into their daily activities,” said Susan Gilmore, executive director of the North Bay Children’s Center .

The center is partnering in the effort with Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers. The grant pays for garden supplies at 15 Sonoma County preschools, monthly produce deliveries from local farmers that include materials about the farmer and farming process, and related teaching activities and supplies.

The program is geared toward lower-income children and will serve 690 students and their families - an estimated 2,760 people altogether - with the goal of encouraging healthier shopping and eating habits.

“They’re in the produce aisle jumping out of the shopping carts,” Gilmore said, describing the vision.

The method is simple: Expose students and their families to fresh fruits and vegetables, encourage their enthusiasm about the products, and help them understand, through activities, where it comes from.

“There’s a lot of research showing that children form their taste preferences at really early ages - and that’s what’s so innovative about this work,” said Leah Murphy, food systems coordinator for the Sonoma County Department of Health, which applied for the grant, the first for preschools from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, the food is incorporated into larger lessons - in discussions about oranges and lemons, bok choy and arugula - about how they are described, how to quarter and share them.

“Kids get to taste the curriculum. It just goes hand in hand with language development and mathematical concepts - it’s not just ‘taste it’ and ‘it’s healthy,’?” said Allison Goodwin, 4Cs resource and referral director.

In the classroom of the 4Cs preschool, also on the McDowell Elementary site, the tangy scent of tangerines fills the air. There is a tasting going on before a lunch prepared with produce from a local farm.

A picture of a tangerine and a mandarin orange decorates a low table. Eight children sit before small square plates, squeezing, smelling and nibbling on the juicy fruit. A teacher asks them to describe how they smell.

“Good,” a student said.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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