Skip to main content

Our neighborhood health story: Empowering a generation through healthy food

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

On Sundays, Land of the Sky United Church of Christ in Asheville, NC, is filled with prayer and song. But on one Tuesday morning this summer, it was filled with the laughter and excited chatter of Life R.O.S.E.S. summer campers. The source of their joy? The smoothies they were creating in the church’s kitchen. 

As the dozen middle school‒aged girls washed and chopped fruit, they collaborated on recipes, each one more exotic than the last. “Let’s try lemons,” one girl suggested over the whir of the blades. “I want blackberries, bananas, strawberries and raspberries too,” another said. “And yogurt,” her friend added.

Isa Whitaker, their garden class teacher, smiled as he poured all of the ingredients into the blender. When he introduced the Strong Roots garden program to campers a few weeks ago, they were hesitant to eat any fruit or vegetable they didn’t recognize. Now, there seemed to be no limit to what they’d try. “How does that smoothie taste?” he asked them a few minutes later. “Twenty thumbs up!” one shouted enthusiastically.

After a morning in the garden, Life R.O.S.E.S. summer campers cooled off with homemade smoothies.

As any parent will tell you, getting kids to eat healthy can be a challenge. In fact, children across the nation still aren’t consuming enough produce. According to a 2017 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 in 10 kids don’t eat enough fruit and 9 in 10 don’t eat enough vegetables.

But Bountiful Cities, a non‒profit in Asheville, may have cracked the code when it comes to getting kids to eat their greens  and its approach is one we could all learn from.

Nicole:  00:07 Our mission is to be the urban agriculture and community gardening resource of Ashville and Buckham County.

Nicole: 00:15 My name is Nicole Hinebaugh and I’m the program director with Bountiful Cities. We’re part of a number of different collaborative initiatives that are working to achieve food sovereignty, how can we grow enough food right here for people to be able to eat and meet their food needs. Education is extremely important and that’s why programs like FEAST and like Strong Roots are crucial.

Summer: 00:45 I’m Summer Whelden  and I’m the cooking and garden teacher for FEAST at Hall Fletcher Elementary. We have a pretty diverse group of kids that go to this school. This was the most economically challenged school. It had the highest percentage of free-and-reduced lunch. Kids are dealing with different stress and different trauma for different reasons. The garden is a place where they can decompress and be connected to the natural world.

Kate: 01:10 Being able to make choices that are healthier choices or to put something in your body that makes you feel good versus just putting something in your body is really important. Having this school-based program where students get the opportunity to play with zucchini. They get to dissect it. They get to taste it raw. They get to taste it in all these different ways. And kids really like that freedom to do things. They get super excited. They come running up to you and like, “What are we gonna make today?” And, “How can we do this?” We bring in multi-colored carrots. So purple and yellow and…thinking about how they taste, and that the color of the carrot doesn’t actually change the fact that it’s still a carrot. We can talk about that and the differences and say it’s just like us. If you look around, we’re all different. We don’t have to judge ourselves on those things and what we look like. Food is the same way. It’s such a great tool for education and such a great tool for just self-reflection. Like you have a kid that’s gonna go sit in the garden and think. That’s pretty powerful.

Creating adventurous, healthy eaters

The secret lies in the unique cooking and gardening classes run by two of Bountiful Cities programs, FEAST and Strong Roots. In these hands‒on courses, playing with food isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. The kitchen is like a laboratory, the children scientists. They can spend an entire class preparing a vegetable or fruit in various ways, until they arrive at a combination that tastes good to them. A child who loves tacos may realize he also likes broccoli, but only if it’s roasted and seasoned with cumin. Another kid may find that lemon juice actually tastes pretty good in a smoothie.

Such discoveries are big wins for Strong Roots and FEAST, which teach children in low–income homes how to grow, prepare and enjoy eating healthy foods. Strong Roots focuses its efforts on after‒school classes and the gardening class at Life R.O.S.E.S. summer camp. FEAST oversees a garden and cooking classes at Hall Fletcher Elementary School, where nearly 60% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Together, these classes are part of a larger effort called the Community Food Education Collaborative, which helps lower–income children and adults in the county eat more fruits and vegetables.

The campers, pictured here with Isa Whitaker, loved snacking on Japanese cucumber, snap peas and tomatoes from the garden.

To help continue its work, the Community Food Education Collaborative recently received a $53,000 Cultivating Healthy Communities (CHC) grant from the Aetna Foundation. “We know healthy eating habits rarely happen by accident. This program is capturing the kids’ attention at a very formative stage of their lives. Our investment in this community will be felt for many years to come,” says Amy Aparicio Clark, managing director of community impact and strategy at the Aetna Foundation.

For many of the people the collaborative hopes to reach, the main barrier to healthy eating is money. Buncombe County is on par with or outpacing much of the nation when it comes to social determinants of health like employment and access to grocery stores and parks, according to data developed by the Aetna Foundation in collaboration with U.S. News and World Report.  But its success is uneven. Nearly 16% of the county lives in poverty, and one in five children here struggle with hunger every day, a 2018 report found.

FEAST and Strong Roots programs take place primarily at Hall Fletcher Elementary School and Life R.O.S.E.S. summer camp.

So while the freedom to experiment with food is rare for most children, it’s perhaps more unusual for many kids in the FEAST and Strong Roots programs. “They’d never have this kind of opportunity at home,” explains Kate Justen, director of youth programs for Bountiful Cities. “Even if you have all the money in the world, you’re not going to say to your kids, ‘Sure, I’ll keep buying you zucchinis so you can just play with them.’”

Yet having those opportunities to explore and adapt foods  especially at a young age  helps create adventurous, healthy eaters. In a FEAST survey conducted at the end of the last school year, 68% of students reported eating fruits and vegetables in at least two meals a day, and 90% said they were willing to try new fruits and vegetables or try them prepared in different ways.

Teaching life lessons

With its inviting design, the FEAST garden at Hall Fletcher does more than just grow food. It also provides a bounty of learning experiences for students. For example, in one of the themed plots located within the garden, they learn about and cultivate the ingredients for pho, pizza and salsa. In another, they discover the fact that root veggies do all their growing underground. Scattered between these patches are small teaching moments, like pie charts painted on tree stumps that depict fractions or a sign reminding kids to observe, predict and learn.

The Rainbow Garden at Hall Fletcher Elementary features themed plots, including the Sunday Garden, above.

Learning experiences are naturally interwoven into the garden, and the garden is fully integrated into the school’s curriculum. It’s not unusual to see a science class pore over plants when studying photosynthesis, or math students evaluating a recent harvest to learn about different units of measurement.

And lessons go beyond the academic. For example, Summer Whelden, who oversees the FEAST programs at Hall Fletcher, likes to use gardening to explain abstract concepts. For example, she’ll show the kids how seeds, like people, need a little bit of space to thrive. Food is also used to convey the idea of energy  how to get the healthy kind (“eat fruits and vegetables”) and how to make the most of it (“don’t spend your energy arguing with people. Find a solution and move on.”).

Connecting to something greater

In addition to educating and nourishing students, the cooking and gardening programs also reflect the children’s culture. They do so by encouraging them to see themselves  their heritage, their traditions  in the food being grown and prepared.

This past summer, Life R.O.S.E.S. campers were in the garden twice a week for the Strong Roots program. When they weren’t busy pulling weeds or plucking fresh beans, the girls learned about African‒American agricultural leaders, like George Washington Carver. They also explored the various crops that enslaved Africans introduced into our nation’s culinary culture. The emphasis on the past was purposeful, explains Melody Henry, an instructor with Strong Roots. “It’s important for this generation to know that formerly enslaved Africans added to agriculture, music, everything,” she says.

One goal of the Bountiful Cities’ programs is to help children develop a relationship with growing food.

Having that kind of deeper connection to gardening can spark an appreciation for growing food. It can also instill in children a confidence in their ability to provide for themselves. The proof was evident when FEAST conducted its end‒of‒year survey last year and examined the results. “[The garden and cooking class] have opened my mind to more fruits and veggies,” one student explained. “[They] made me want to cook more at home and make salads.” Another said, “This program has taught me how important it is to try new things. And it also taught me why gardening is important.”

Your community shapes how long and how well you live. The Aetna Foundation recently teamed up with U.S. News & World Report to rank counties across the U.S. on factors like education, nutrition, public safety and more. Out of nearly 3,000 counties assessed, we identified the 500 healthiest communities in America. Buncombe County, NC, has an overall health score that’s 11 points higher than the national average, but even the healthiest communities have room for improvement. In this series, we take a look at counties on the list where residents have identified a health challenge and are working to solve it with the help of a grant from the Aetna Foundation. Here, we profile cooking and gardening classes in Asheville that are teaching kids how to grow  and prepare — their own food. Learn More

About the author

Bonnie Vengrow is a journalist based in NYC who has written for Parents, Prevention, Rodale’s Organic Life, Good Housekeeping and others. She’s never met a hiking trail she doesn’t like and is currently working on perfecting her headstand in yoga class.


Healthy Communities

The Aetna Foundation is helping communities tackle their most pressing health challenges.


Healthy Communities

The Aetna Foundation is helping communities tackle their most pressing health challenges.


Healthy Communities

The Aetna Foundation is helping communities tackle their most pressing health challenges.


Healthy Communities

The Aetna Foundation is helping communities tackle their most pressing health challenges.


Also of interest: