Aisles of tomatoes, habanero peppers, cucumbers and green beans took center stage on Wednesday morning during a field trip for 20 students from Snelling.
As sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students walked through rows of broccoli and cabbage, they were able to taste the cherry tomatoes picked fresh off the vine.
Cha Teng Herr, owner of Herr Farm in Atwater, walked with students around the 20 acres and showed them the passion fruit, ginger and jicama growing.
Solomon Ramos, 13, picked cilantro, chilies and peppers and said he enjoyed having the opportunity to pick his own food.
“The most important thing is teaching students where food comes from,” said Alison Kahl, principal of Snelling-Merced Falls Union Elementary. “In the last two years, we’ve really brought in a healthy component.”
The most important thing is teaching students where food comes from. In the last two years, we’ve really brought in a healthy component.
Alison Kahl, principal of Snelling-Merced Falls Union Elementary
Kahl said they have been making efforts to stay away from processed and canned foods, and are focusing on feeding students fresh fruits and vegetables. Weekly deliveries of local produce is the goal, Kahl said.
September is designated as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and the United Way of Merced County collaborated with the Merced County of Department of Public Health to provide students with a hands-on experience of how a local farm operates and learn about the process food goes through before it ends up on their plates.
Annabeth Humphries, 13, said she enjoyed picking vegetables because she knows she can take them home to eat. Humphries also liked learning about the gardening process so she can apply their pointers to the garden at their school in Snelling.
“It feels good because you taste it and know your hard work pays off,” Humphries said.
Kahl said the garden has been around for about four years, and the students choose what they grow. She noticed students enjoy eating vegetables more because they are part of the process, and having the garden has improved the health factor of meals prepared at school.
“Two out of three meals are at school,” Kahl said. “We have to be the pioneers and be the example. Now we have kids asking about fruits and vegetables they didn’t even know before.”
Shelli Holland, food director at the school, said they make almost all of their meals from scratch and said it makes a huge difference in the health and quality of the food served, especially when looking at the sodium and sugar intakes.
“We’re pretty much doing all cooking from scratch and staying away from processed food,” Holland said. “We try to do everything fresh and homemade vs. serving frozen foods.”
Stephanie Russell, registered dietitian and supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health, said teaching students at a young age to eat healthy helps them to make healthier choices as they grow older, and can help prevent diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
According to the 2016 Community Health Assessment by the Merced County Department of Public Health, one in four children between ages 5 and 12 are obese in Merced County.
“We know that Merced has some of the worse rates in the U.S.,” Russell said.
By the end of the day, Russell said she encourages everyone to have five servings, equivalent to five handfuls, of fruits and vegetables. Having five servings a day or making sure half of the plate is filled with vegetables can help prevent obesity, especially for youths.
“We’d like to take it to the next level and have more kids eating food from local farms,” Russell said.
Katie Meyer, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center, said it’s easy to fall into habits of eating junk foods and sodas on a regular basis. Although she has only been practicing in Merced for a month, she already has seen multiple kids coming in for obesity problems.
“I definitely think it is something prevalent in Merced County,” Meyer said. “It’s not a unique problem and I think it is a national epidemic.”
Meyer said the obesity problems are a result of multiple factors, including easy access to and lack of nutrition in fast food. Inactivity that stems from playing video games, being on computers and mobile devices also is a big change from even 20 years ago, Meyer said, and has a lot to do with obesity.
Something Meyer said she always tell parents to start with is the “5-2-1-0 rule,” meaning five servings of vegetables and fruits a day; no more than two hours of watching television; at least one hour of exercise; and zero drinks that have sugars in them.
“Diet and lack of exercise are the main two factors that come into play,” Meyer said. “As medical providers, some of the more scary things we worry about tend to be … the psychological impacts that obesity has.”
Diet and lack of exercise are the main two factors that come into play. As medical providers, some of the more scary things we worry about tend to be … the psychological impacts that obesity has.
Stephanie Meyer, pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center
Such concerns include bullying of children who are overweight, Meyer said.
“It’s definitely a concern that needs to be addressed by parents in school and for everyone to be aware of those issues,” Meyer said. “Be good role models for your kids and make these changes in the whole family, don’t just single out one kid.”
Stephanie Nathan, public health program manager for the Merced County Department of Public Health, said environmental factors also take a role in high obesity rates, like having safe places for kids to play and the accessibility of healthy foods.
Five out of the 10 so-called food deserts – areas that lack access to fresh and healthy food – in Merced County are located in South Merced, Nathan said.
Residents living in South Merced have no grocery store close by, Russell said, and have to travel more than half a mile to get to one. The small markets in South Merced have limited space for fresh produce if they have the refrigerated space, Russell said, and are often very expensive.
The Merced County Department of Public Health holds classes around the county to teach parents how to shop on a budget, how to plan meals and how to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in their diets. For more information, community members can call 209-381-1161.