June 22, 2007

‘Veggie Project’ takes fresh aim at childhood obesity

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Reneque Shannon, 13, shows off the produce available at a farmers’ market held at the Preston Taylor Boys and Girls Club. (photo by Bethany Cosand)

‘Veggie Project’ takes fresh aim at childhood obesity

The farmers’ markets at area Boys and Girls Clubs are fighting childhood obesity by making healthy foods more readily available. (photo by Bethany Cosand)

The farmers’ markets at area Boys and Girls Clubs are fighting childhood obesity by making healthy foods more readily available. (photo by Bethany Cosand)

A creative idea from a Vanderbilt graduate student, supported by the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt Children's Health Improvement and Prevention (VCHIP) program, is taking on childhood obesity one plate at a time.

The idea, dubbed the “Veggie Project,” was launched June 11 and brings a farmers’ market to three Boys and Girls Clubs of Middle Tennessee locations each week through Aug. 10.

The theory behind the project is that children living in areas with a high concentration of poverty — which tend to have a low concentration of grocery stores and poor produce selection — often end up eating what is most available and least expensive; fast food or processed foods high in calories and low in nutrients.

“Many of these families are in what we call 'food deserts,'” said Darcy Freedman, a doctoral student in the Community Research and Action Program at Vanderbilt and the manager of the Veggie Project. “We conducted a food audit in the areas surrounding each of the Boys and Girls Clubs and found that healthy fruits and vegetables were far less available than unhealthy items such as candy, cigarettes and alcohol. It's difficult to 'eat 5 a day' if produce is not available in your community.”

As part of Freedman's Ph.D. dissertation project, and with the help of funds procured by the VCHIP Program, there will be two surveys during the summer to monitor the impact of the farmers' markets at the Clubs.

LaShanda Harris shopped at the very first farmers' market on June 11. She is the parent of a camper at the Preston Taylor Club. She feeds her four children lots of vegetables and bought 10 pounds of turnip greens at the farmers market.

“At the grocery store the greens don't look as good. Sometimes we'll travel 30 minutes to the Harris Teeter to find better quality produce, but this is much better. This is practically in our back yard,” said Harris. “I came to pick up my daughter at the club and was able to shop right here.”

John Hamilton, unit director at the Thompson Lane Boys and Girls clubs of Middle Tennessee, is excited about the farmers’ market coming to his unit on Fridays throughout the summer.

“It takes our nutrition education programs to another level so we won't just be teaching it and preaching it; we can show them what we're talking about and bring it to them so they can make the right purchases here at the club,” Hamilton said. “Some kids come from an environment where good nutrition isn't a priority, survival is. With the fresh produce coming and the opportunity to purchase without having to go all the way across town, this is almost as good as home delivery.”

“We know that childhood obesity impacts every part of our society, but lower-income families have more obstacles to overcome,” said Mary Kate Mouser, director of the VCHIP Program.

“Through the Veggie Project we were able to bring the right mix of experts together and created a program that can increase knowledge and change behaviors.”

Proceeds from each of the markets will be used by the Boys and Girls Clubs they serve to benefit at least one of the Clubs' members with a scholarship grant or similar support. Freedman says another goal of the farmers' markets is for them to become self-sustaining.

The Veggie Project runs through Aug. 10. On Tuesdays, it's at the Preston Taylor unit at 915 38th Ave. North; on Thursdays at the Vine Hill unit at 601 Benton Ave.; and on Fridays at the Thompson Lane unit at 67 Thompson Lane.

The markets run from 3:30-6 p.m.

The project is funded through the 2008 camp season as well. Partners include: Nashville Urban Harvest, Food Security Partners of Middle Tennessee, Baptist Healing Trust, and the Vanderbilt Center for Health Services together with VCHIP.