We know healthy foods are good for us, but many families still turn to convenience foods at mealtime. That tendency is taking a toll on our collective waistlines, with obesity rates and incidence of diabetes increasing among adults and children alike. Dr. Holly Harring, a contributing faculty member in the BS in Public Health program in the School of Health Sciences, is working to combat this trend. As the director of the South Carolina Farm to School program, she is bringing farm-fresh foods and ideas to schools and helping children in her state develop a taste for healthy eating. Here, Dr. Harring shares her experience in South Carolina and ideas to encourage children and parents everywhere to change their diets for the better.

Why is healthy eating so important for school-aged children?
Instilling good eating habits in children helps them grow up to be healthy adults. Exposing children to fruits and vegetables at an early age is important, especially for children from underserved communities who may not get these foods at home. Many children are disconnected from where their food comes from, and this can influence taste preferences. Meanwhile, we are seeing children being diagnosed with obesity-related ailments such as Type 2 diabetes. The more we can help children grow up preferring healthy foods, the more likely they are to select these foods as they enter adolescence and adulthood.

Why is healthy eating important to you personally?
I strongly value the connection between nutrition and health. I have a 1-year-old daughter who eats salmon and avocado. I hope that the more she’s exposed to healthy foods, the more she’ll develop a taste preference for them. But so much of our focus is on food for optimal health. Why shouldn’t food also taste good? An apple fresh off the farm tastes so much better than one sitting in a truck for four days. If children like the food they’re served, they’ll eat it.

How can parents encourage their children to eat healthy foods?
Healthy eating starts at home. Your children do what you do, so it’s important to model healthy behaviors. Parents of young children often think their kids won’t eat healthy, but children are very open. If they refuse the first time, keep trying. It can take 13 times before they’ll eat something new. Be patient if your child doesn’t like a food at first. All of us have taste preferences, so it’s fair for a child to say, “I don’t like that.” But repeat exposure. After all, taste preferences can change.

What are some good ideas for busy parents who want their children to eat a healthy lunch at school?
Most of us don’t have a lot of time, but a healthy lunch doesn’t have to be elaborate. Go back to real food, and give children fewer options. Remember that a child is more likely to eat fruit if it’s cut up rather than whole. Find convenience items that are also healthy. Carrots and dip or hummus and crackers are healthy, convenient, and totable.

How are you helping schools incorporate healthy foods through the program you direct?
We work with schools to provide students with healthier, tastier meals. Our strategy is to introduce children to fresh, local unprocessed produce. Schools agree to serve at least two South Carolina fruits and vegetables each month. We have a garden program with hands-on activities to teach children about nutrition and agriculture. Farmers often participate in school activities, coming for breakfast with students. We also offer culinary training for food service workers and do taste-testing for school lunches so children have a say in what they eat. If we ask for their opinions, they’re more likely to buy into what’s served.

What is the potential impact?
We’re exposing children to healthy, local foods, and we hope their parents are also learning about them. Many schools host community events, involve parents in taste-testing foods, or send children home with produce from the school garden. They provide recipes, such as how to prepare collards. These children will become consumers one day. We hope they’ll be more likely to demand and purchase locally grown vegetables when they’re adults.

How can people promote healthy eating and farm to school activities for schoolchildren in their own state?
Here in the U.S., there’s a national farm to school network (farmtoschool.org). All states have a lead, so you should be able to get in touch with someone wherever you live. You can approach your state lead to see what’s happening and get connected.

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