Veggie-loving sprouts

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Good eats: Dressed in a tiger-print onesie for “Pajama Day,” Kenna’jah Swygert walked into her cafeteria at PS7 Elementary in Oak Park with a bag full of celery, carrots, onions, oranges and lemons. Having just shopped at the Food Literacy Center’s free Holiday Farmers Market on December 20, she had big plans for her haul.

“I’m gonna make me some new food and make it with my momma and eat it all,” Swygert said.

The Food Literacy Center’s founder and executive director Amber Stott loves to hear that. She started the program in 2011 as a way to inspire kids to eat their vegetables. She had noticed that food banks replaced junk food with healthier choices, but found a gap in meal prep know-how.

So with the blessing and support of local organizations like Soil Born Farms and Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, she went to schools in lower-income neighborhoods to introduce children to fresh-grown foods. Now, Stott said that they visit 1,200 kids at 10 schools each week—all free of charge, thanks to donations.

“Right now, [children] don’t have any eating habits,” Stott said. “This is when they’re going to form those. And study after study shows that the more positive of an interaction that a kid has with any type of food, that’s the food they’re going to want and crave and eat in their adulthood.”

On December 20, a team of eager volunteers helped kids make vegetable-shaped Christmas ornaments and chant stuff like “V-E-G-G-I-E-S / Fruits and veggies are the best.” At another table, students dipped sticks of celery, carrots and jicama into bright red hummus that contained their democratically elected “vegetable of the year”: beets.

The program offers food experimentation too costly for some families.

“If you only have a limited food budget, you’re going to buy calories that you know will be consumed,” Stott said.

But due to her program, Stott said that 70 percent of parents reported that children want to eat what they tried at school.

“We’ll have parents show up and say, ’My kid asked me to buy cactus last night,’” Stott said.

Not seeking to shame anybody’s diet, Stott said the program starts with a peanut butter sandwich to show students that the food they already eat is healthy, but can be made healthier through choices like swapping out jelly for fresh fruit slices. From there, the program breaches into more and more unfamiliar culinary territory to make fruits and vegetables taste like comfort food.

“At first, I felt [vegetables were] nasty,” said student Semaj Lilly. “Then, since I got to Food Literacy, they gave me new stuff and I tried it and it turned out good.”