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Early learning program teaches children to love vegetables

The program is aimed at children under age 5.

By Stephen Feller
Introducing children to locally-grown, fresh produce they've never seen before at a young age increases the chances they'll like them. Photo by gpointstudio/Shutterstock
Introducing children to locally-grown, fresh produce they've never seen before at a young age increases the chances they'll like them. Photo by gpointstudio/Shutterstock

PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 11 (UPI) -- Getting children to eat vegetables can be a challenge. Researchers found in a pilot program in Portland that educating young children on nutrition using locally-grown fruits and vegetables increased their likelihood of trying and liking them.

Harvest for Healthy Kids is a program that began as a joint effort of Portland State University and Mt. Hood Community College Head Start and Early Head Start. The pilot study focused on 226 children within at five participating Head Start centers in Portland. The goal was to introduce children ages 5 and under to locally-grown vegetables that many of them may not have tasted before.

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"Fruits and vegetables are an important part of healthy eating habits which are critical in the prevention of childhood obesity and diet-related chronic diseases," said Betty Izumi, a professor at Portland State University and project director and principal investigator of Harvest for Healthy Kids, in a press release. "We know that early food experiences influence lifelong eating habits and that the more times children are exposed to new foods, whether through taste exposures or other sensory exposures, the more likely they will be willing to try those foods and to like them."

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Researchers worked with children at the five Portland-area schools between 2012 and 2013, splitting them into 3 groups: One center received no additional food education; two centers had meals altered to include more of the locally-grown vegetables considered for the program; and two centers had meals modified as well as nutrition education.

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The target foods used in the program, all of which are relatively affordable and prepared with simple recipes, included carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cabbage, turnip, rutabaga, berries, beets and asparagus.

In the low-intervention group, willingness to try the vegetables increased for four of the nine: beet, cabbage, rutabaga and turnip. In the high-intervention group, willingness to try all nine foods increased.

Researchers found a significant increase in the interest and willingness to try, and enjoy, new vegetables among the children who received both high and low intervention. In the case of rutabaga, 78.1 percent of children liked the vegetable after going through the program and trying it, whereas just 44.2 percent who liked it before intervention.

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"The Harvest for Healthy Kids pilot study suggests a positive association between the intervention and willingness to try and liking for target foods among study participants," researchers wrote in the study. "Additional research is needed to assess the impact of the program on fruit and vegetable intake."

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The study is published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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