GREENVILLE — Jonesville resident Hetal Patel, an East Carolina University nutrition science student, has turned bananas into dolphins and grapes into balls to tempt kids to try new snacks.
Making food healthy and appealing is one of the goals of Snack RX, a program designed and operated by ECU nutrition science students in the College of Human Ecology. The program, funded through a Vidant Health Community Benefit Grant, began at the Boys and Girls Club in Ayden and has expanded to each of the Pitt County clubs. More than 350 children participate each week.
On a recent afternoon in Farmville, Patel and Emily Ewing, both ECU juniors majoring in nutrition science, prepared about 75 snack cups for each of the children, keeping known allergies in mind.
Peanut butter spread on the bottom of the cup helped steady the banana dolphin, its mouth holding a grape, or ball, resting on the edge of the cup. Patel used a black marker to draw an eye on the dolphin’s face.
“Some stuff they like and some they don’t, but they’re going to love this,” said Peggy May, a Boys and Girls Club staff member who has worked in the snack room for five years.
Xzavier Baker-Pittman, 8, a second-grader at H.B. Sugg Elementary School in Farmville, said he liked the grapes, peanut butter and bananas, but he didn’t like them all together. He said the peanut butter would be good with jelly.
He’s tried all the snack choices that the ECU students have brought each week, from Craisins to melon to turkey wraps. “I was nervous to see what they’d bring,” Baker-Pittman said. “At first, I didn’t like broccoli, but then I liked it. I didn’t like carrots, but they brought them with ranch dressing, and it was good.”
Younger children are more willing than middle and high schoolers to try new foods, said Patel, the Snack RX coordinator in Farmville.
“It’s a struggle to get them to try things even if they might like it,” Patel said. “But we know they’re kids. We’re not going to let them eat something gross.”
Not only are the Snack RX choices healthier, they’re also free.
The kids are not allowed to use the vending machines — filled with honey buns or Oreos costing 75 cents or chips at 50 cents — on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when the ECU students bring snacks. But it hasn’t been a big deal. The club plans to remove the machines from the Farmville location and they’re already gone in Ayden and Greenville.
The Snack RX program started in 2012 after ECU volunteers at the Ayden Boys and Girls Club were repeatedly asked for change to buy snacks from the vending machines. As it turned out, the club had a Vidant grant to implement a healthy snack program but no one to execute it.
ECU’s nutrition science department and Dr. Brenda Bertrand, associate professor of nutrition science, was contacted. Bertrand became faculty adviser for the Snack RX program and ECU student Elizabeth “Lizzy” Kroeger became the coordinator at the Ayden club. The program was implemented in all the clubs last fall, and may expand into Lenoir County in the future.
Kroeger, now a first-year graduate student in nutrition science, graduate assistant for Bertrand and Snack RX administrator, said the children are at a crucial point in their development. “We want to make sure we are feeding their bodies with good stuff,” she said. “Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables – we’re just introducing them to foods they may not have known about before.”
“You know the kids like the snack when they ask for the recipe to take home,” Kroeger said. “They are getting their parents involved too. We’re not only affecting kids, but we’re connecting with them in their homes.”
The Snack RX program has had more than 50 ECU student volunteers this academic year. The program also operates a garden component in Greenville and Ayden, which helps teach children how to grow food in raised plant beds. “We figure if they grow the food, they’ll try it and like it,” said Kroeger, an Apex resident who received a bachelor’s in nutrition science in 2013.
ECU student Synovia Simmons of Elizabeth City is the Snack RX coordinator in Ayden, and Susannah Small of Kittery Point, Maine, leads the program in Greenville. Garden club coordinator is Krysta Parkhurst of Bethlehem.
For more information, visit the SnackRX Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SnackRxProgram.