“What is this ingredient?” she asked.
“Blueberries,” the children replied.
“They look like blueberries, but we are going to pretend they look like grapes,” she said.
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The adults in the room chuckled.
Filiatrault is a dietitian who is part of the project “Little Hands Growing and Cooking Healthy Foods.” The project is an initiative of the Imperial County Public Health Department and the Imperial County Children & Families First Commission. The main goals of the project are to teach children where food comes from and to teach families the importance of establishing healthy habits in early childhood.
Six preschools from the Valley are participating in the program. The children are planting gardens, picking the vegetables and learning to cook with them.
“It allows children to be exposed to fruits and vegetables in different ways. A lot of children are not exposed to gardening anymore because families don’t garden, and this program allows kids to discover where produce comes from,” Filiatrault said.
Community organizer Vincent Zazueta is also helping with the “Little Hands” project. Zazueta is working as a mentor.
Zazueta said he hopes this program will help to prevent childhood obesity in the Valley. He wants to educate children about the importance of choosing to eat healthy food as opposed to fast food.
“It’s very hard to tell people not to eat in McDonald’s,” he said.
Imperial County has the highest childhood obesity rate in the state, according to a recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It’s important that we start working now with children so we don’t have those health problems as they get older, because we, as taxpayers, are going to end up paying for the health problems that these children that become adults will have later on,” Zazueta said.
The program is an exciting learning experience for the children because Filiatrault makes it fun for them. They get to do hands-on gardening. There are coloring activities, songs and food tasting exercises.
The children “love to play in the soil, they love to plant the seeds, they love to garden,” Filiatrault said. “As soon as they get the go from the teacher, they run to pick the vegetables from the garden.”
Jeannie West, director of the Child Development Center at El Centro Regional Medical Center, said this is one of the greatest programs she has seen in her 43 years of teaching preschool.
“It has been an excellent resource for our children,” West said. “Our children are now eating almost all the vegetables that we’ve presented. They’ve expanded their horizons as far as food is concerned.”
The program is not just for the children. Parents were invited to the kick-off events and they helped plant the gardens, too.
“This year in addition to our garden, our parents got together and they planted an orange, a lime and a lemon tree,” West said. “I have great parents and they have great participation.”