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Utah volunteers help Head Start preschoolers make healthy choices

SHARE Utah volunteers help Head Start preschoolers make healthy choices

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Not all Utahns have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so a locally run federal education program intends to change that one child at a time.

The Utah Community Action Head Start preschools, serving Salt Lake and Tooele counties and in Wendover, carefully plan well-balanced meals and snacks for the nearly 2,000 students who attend morning or afternoon preschool sessions, knowing that might be the only healthy options the kids get all day.

"We know that proper nutrition is part of their healthy development," said Joni Clark, chief development officer with the preschool program. She said it is important that kids know and recognize what it means to be healthy and to choose healthier options whenever possible.

"Fresh fruits and vegetables are especially important to learn about and have access to," she said.

The preschool's main kitchen, at the South Salt Lake Head Start location, employs a nutritionist who follows standards set by the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meals are to include foods that "contribute to the wellness, healthy growth and development of young children," according to the USDA website.

Clark said every menu item served to the kids has child-sized portions of a fruit and a vegetable option, whole grains and protein.

"Many of them are getting a limited amount at home," she said. "We do our best to make sure they have access when they are here."

On Thursday, the preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, teamed up with community volunteers from Goldman Sachs' Salt Lake City offices to learn about how fruits and vegetables grow and how they can be used in fun foods, such as smoothies and pizza.

Head Start chef Alexis Van Otten taught the kids and volunteers how to make pizza dough with five ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, sugar and water, and then showed them how to stretch it and make it fit a pan. The kids counted as the dough was mixed, patted the dough thin and selected their own toppings.

"It's fun to see the kids be creative and make healthy choices," Van Otten said, applauding as children grabbed handfuls of sliced green peppers and olives for their pizza pies.

"They have no fear," she said. "They're confident and know what they like."

Cheryl Hone, a program specialist supervisor with Utah Community Action, said hands-on activities are especially helpful when teaching kids about healthy living. It helps them better relate and remember important concepts, she said.

"It's important that they see healthy eating as fun," Hone said.

About 2,000 children whose families meet various eligibility requirements attend the more than 100 classrooms in the Head Start preschool programs throughout Salt Lake and Tooele counties and in Wendover. Classes run Monday through Thursday and are about 3 1/2 hours in length, including meal times.

The main kitchen in South Salt Lake, at 2825 S. 200 East, prepares and distributes all the food for classes throughout the program.

"The food we give them — breakfast and a snack or lunch and a snack — makes up two-thirds of their nutritional needs for the whole day," Hone said.

The federally funded program aims to give low-income families access to high-quality early childhood education, and Clark said in-kind donations, including volunteer hours, are imperative to meeting those goals.

"We appreciate our volunteers," she said. "We are so supported by the community and rely on groups to help us."

The program needs to attract $4.5 million in donated goods and services every year to meet federal guidelines for grant funding. Clark said there is a variety of opportunities for volunteers, making the program an attractive choice.

Volunteers with Goldman Sachs’ Community TeamWorks initiative, which works to serve communities, also gave the parents of Head Start preschoolers some tips for grocery shopping on a budget and saving money at the store. Recommendations include sticking to a budget that is determined by considering family income and expenses, and setting spending and saving goals each month, as well as buying only what is needed and shopping sales as much as possible.

"Our population is so vulnerable, people just want to help," Clark said. "Who doesn't love to help kids, and kids in poverty, especially."

To learn more about the Utah Community Action Head Start Preschool program, visit utahca.org/head-start.