Back in 2013, I reached out to pediatric feeding specialist Melanie Potock (Coach Mel) to see if she would help me to write a cooking curriculum for preschool children to teach them the joy of fruits and vegetables in an inclusive and fun way that engaged all of their senses. Melanie was the perfect person for the job, with her experience helping all types of eaters with a variety of challenges. Melanie lives in Colorado and I’m in Virginia, so we worked late over the phone on many nights during the course of the summer, writing our first draft of Dr. Yum’s Preschool Food Adventure. We got Ashleigh Buyers, a budding local artist to create the Dr. Yum Avatar to lead the students through the adventure.
We recruited eight local schools to pilot the first edition with nine monthly lessons featuring a different fruit and vegetable each month. We made sure that even the most hesitant children could enjoy using their other senses to begin forming friendships with new foods on the road to tasting and enjoying them. Board member Heidi DiEugenio and I borrowed laminators from our kids’ preschool, laminated each page, and assembled each binder on my dining room table. Little did we know how much fun the kids would have and how many parents we would turn into believers in our approach to food. At one YMCA preschool, the teachers and parents began the year quite skeptical that the kids would try our featured foods. But soon, they found their kids were asking to make our Tangy Broccoli Salad at home and even packed it in their lunch!
After the first year, we decided to share our program with a community action team assembled around helping increase awareness about nutrition and increasing cooking skills in families enrolled in Head Start programs in the city of Fredericksburg. Head Start is a federally funded preschool program that serves low-income preschoolers across the US. There are over two million children enrolled throughout the US. Students receive a valuable set of experiences and education making them more ready to enter kindergarten. Our community action team volunteered to share the Dr. Yum Project lessons with kids at parent nights for children and families in the 13 classrooms in Fredericksburg. While the kids followed our recipes with me and some other community pediatricians and dietitians, the parents learned to cook easy, nutritious meals with Brian Kiernan, the Fook Services Director for Fredericksburg City Schools. After a few months of seeing the kids enjoying the lessons, Brian (also known as “BK”) said to me, “Why aren’t our kids doing this curriculum in Head Start?” And from there we worked together to see how we could implement this new curriculum in our local Head Start program.
In 2014, Wendy Cannon, our new preschool curriculum specialist at the time, went to the Fredericksburg Head Start school to do a special training for the teachers. We were both emotional and excited that we would be reaching this new group of children in our community. At that moment, however, the teachers were not quite as excited as we were. Head Start teachers are a dedicated group of educators that have to participate in a huge list of tasks to ensure that this high-risk group of kids is meeting their educational, physical, and emotional needs. We sensed that our curriculum was adding to their already huge pile of responsibilities. We did our best to train them and relied on their relentless preschool curriculum specialist, Laura Dove, and BK to take it from there with our guidance on the sidelines.
What happened over the next three years was remarkable. Despite a series of setbacks including a big renovation to the school that forced the curriculum to be put on the shelf for almost a year, the teachers slowly started to see the changes in their students. These changes helped to inspire a garden to grow foods from the curriculum and other wellness initiatives. BK made sure the foods featured in our curriculum were also featured in the school lunches to provide more exposure to new foods. The kids were eating better and the research we gathered proved it!
Teachers were excited, food services staff were enthusiastic and the kids were learning to enjoy fruits and vegetables! We are so grateful for the teachers, students, and staff for sticking with us. We have since been able to enroll other Head Start classrooms in six other states, by showing our success in Fredericksburg. With the help of our expanding expert team, we have made many awesome improvements and additions to the program.
Here's the big news! After years of hard work, we have been invited to partner with the National Head Start Association! This partnership means that we have the potential to reach even more Head Start classrooms across the country. We are planning to sponsor and speak at conferences and webinars for Head Start directors, staff, and parents and we hope to share our knowledge about nutrition and our curriculum with this incredible and supportive community.
We are already seeing the effect this partnership will have on our organization and how we can spread our mission. We are confident that we can reach so many more children and families to help them overcome barriers to eating well. We hope to utilize the opportunity to reach more families to also collect more data to continue to improve our programs and our impact. Already one group of six Head Start classrooms in Northern Alabama enjoyed the curriculum so much last year that their teachers spread the word across the state about the impact the program was having on their students. The Community Action Partnership of North Alabama came back this spring and ordered kits for 130 more Alabama Head Start classrooms!
We are so grateful to the National Head Start Association for their belief in our work and the platform to share it nationwide. Most of all we are thankful to all of the teachers and families in Fredericksburg and beyond that helped us to improve and expand “Dr. Yum’s Preschool Food Adventure” over these past eight years.