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Award winning Farm To Belly Program promotes healthy eating for Upstate children

March may be National Nutrition Month but an innovative program in Greenville County is seeking to change eating patterns and curb childhood obesity all year long.

Farm To Belly, a collaboration of Children’s Hospital of PRISMA Health, Feed & Seed and SHARE Head Start, is a one-of-a-kind food intervention program that gives preschoolers’ families weekly recipe bags so that families can cook the food together as “homework.” The program also receives evaluation support from Clemson University.

“The biggest thing I have learned these past three years is that the mission of this program is so beneficial to everyone involved,” said Kerry McKenzie, the program’s creator and special projects coordinator for PRISMA Health’s Bradshaw Institute for Community Child Health & Advocacy.

“It’s a lot of work, but the partners and Head Start staff and teachers all make it possible for the children and their families.”

There are more than 450 families involved in Farm To Belly, which runs for seven months during the school year at four Head Start Centers – North Franklin Head Start, Easley Bridge Head Start, Watkins Road Head Start and Parker Head Start. Head Start is a school-readiness program administered in Greenville by Sunbelt Human Advancement Resources (SHARE).

“The future of Farm To Belly is bright,” said McKenzie, who hopes to expand the program across the state through workshops and training sessions. “It’s important to expose children to healthy options early in life with the hopes that healthy habits become a preference. Oftentimes we find that young children are influencing parents and caregivers to make healthy choices because they want their mom, dad or grandma, etc, to be ‘Choosy,’ too.”

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Akuiesa Cooley first learned about the program from her son, Christian, three years ago. He kept talking about Choosy, a green alien mascot that helps children understand the concept of Farm To Belly a little easier.

“He kept talking about how great Choosy was, and I didn’t know who he was talking about,” Cooley said. “It’s when he brought home fruits and vegetables that I realized he was talking about Farm To Belly.”

Cooley said her son’s enthusiasm spread to her older children, who started taking over meal preparation on the days that recipes, fruits and vegetables were sent home. She had to set up an assembly line of sorts in her kitchen to let them get involved.

“It’s healthy, and that is the big thing,” she said. “It makes them feel proud to be taking part.”

Feed & Seed is a hub for collaborative partners such as food producers, volunteers, community outreach, growers and distributors, said Mike McGirr, executive director of the nonprofit organization and a graduate of the Riley Diversity Leadership Institute.

“One of the ways Feed & Seed envisioned, and is now working to fulfill, the potential of Farm To Belly was to utilize local farms to supply the program,” McGirr said. “For the vast majority of the produce, our friends at Francis Produce generously supply the ingredients. This year, based on the results from the previous two years, we knew some of the kids’ favorite recipes. We knew beets, carrots and sweet potatoes were popular and were able to bring Clemson’s Student Organic Research Farm into the collaboration, growing specific varieties for our region for use in the recipe kits. Results from a new survey and interviews about these vegetables will enable us to use data to plan local farmers’ production for upcoming markets and eventually neighborhood bulk sales for families and even local markets.”

Sarah Griffin, an associate professor with Clemson’s Public Health Sciences Department, said she started helping Farm To Belly with evaluation almost three years ago as a project for Clemson students.

“Evaluation information for Farm To Belly is clearly showing an increase in children’s ability to recognize and willingness to try vegetables,” Griffin said. “Additionally, parents report that they want to learn more about gardening and an increase in children’s physical activity. The program is building a foundation for healthy eating and movement in young children.”

In 2018, Farm To Belly received the Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award. Presented by Furman University’s Riley Institute and South Carolina Future Minds, the award celebrates promising education initiatives for improving the lives of students across South Carolina.

About PRISMA Health Children’s Hospital Upstate
Children’s Hospital of PRISMA Health cares for more than 400,000 infants, children and adolescents each year. From primary care to specialty care, it is dedicated to providing outstanding medical care for every child. GHS Children’s Hospital is committed to serving not only the patients’ well-being but the well-being of their families. Greenville Health System is the Upstate affiliate of PRISMA Health, the largest not-for-profit health organization in South Carolina. PRISMAHealth, which serves more than 1.2 million patients annually, is comprised of two affiliates – GHS and Palmetto Health.

About Feed & Seed
Feed & Seed’s mission is to increase food security for all South Carolinians. Through creative partnerships with established organizations it focuses existing resources and partner missions onto subjects of mutual agreement: feeding our hungry, bringing prosperity to our farmers, and getting local farm goods into the mainstream consumer and institutional market of South Carolina. Feed & Seed is a registered 501(c)3 Non-Profit.

About SHARE Head Start
Sunbelt Human Advancement Resources, Inc. (SHARE), Department of Children and Family Development (Early Head Start and Head Start) utilizes evidence-based approaches to providing quality comprehensive services to 1,714 children Birth to Five, their families and pregnant women across 22 centers in Anderson, Greenville, Oconee and Pickens counties. Families in the program have opportunities to work with family advocates at each of the centers to gain educational and leadership skills.

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