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Food Literacy Center seeks help teaching youngsters about healthy eating

With beet juice staining his chin, Matthew Castaneda, 10, smiles at kitchen staff after sinking his teeth into some fruits and veggies brought into the cafeteria at Capitol Heights Academy in Oak Park. The Food Literacy Center’s after-school program is designed to help children develop healthy eating habits by exploring nutritious foods.
With beet juice staining his chin, Matthew Castaneda, 10, smiles at kitchen staff after sinking his teeth into some fruits and veggies brought into the cafeteria at Capitol Heights Academy in Oak Park. The Food Literacy Center’s after-school program is designed to help children develop healthy eating habits by exploring nutritious foods. lsterling@sacbee.com

It’s 2:30 on a warm fall afternoon and most of the children at Capitol Heights Academy in Oak Park are whirling at high speed around the playground. But not Matthew Castaneda.

Matthew, 10, is holed up in the cafeteria, sitting with three friends at a long table and talking about bell peppers.

“Most people think they’re a vegetable,” the fifth-grader declares with the confidence of a veteran organic gardener. “But because they have seeds, they’re actually a fruit.”

Matthew made this and other intriguing produce discoveries through the Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit program designed to help children develop healthy eating habits by cooking and exploring nutritious foods.

Founded three years ago, the center began at Capitol Heights as a pilot project and has grown rapidly as its popularity has soared. Relying on four paid staff and a trained corps of volunteers, it serves 2,400 children through after-school programs at schools, nonprofit organizations and the Sacramento and Yolo county libraries.

“Because kids’ eating habits haven’t been firmly formed yet, we have a great opportunity to create healthy eaters, to help these kids become food adventurers and build habits that will last a lifetime,” said Amber Stott, who launched the center after a career in nonprofit management and food writing.

The fundamental mission, Stott said, is to inspire kids to eat their vegetables. Many students enrolled in the program are from low-income families and are on subsidized lunch programs, and most have had little exposure to fresh produce and concepts such as reading food labels and thinking about the environmental effects of certain foods.

“We introduce them to amazing, high-quality foods they’ve never tasted, and then they go home and ask their parents to look for them when they go to the grocery store,” Stott said. “It’s like smoking and seat belts. Give kids the information and change will happen.”

Evonne Fisher, who has a daughter participating in the program, is living proof that the strategy works. Before 7-year-old Pearryn joined Food Literacy, Fisher was a timid eater. Now she’s downright fearless.

“Before Food Literacy, if I was scared of how a certain food looked, I wouldn’t try it,” Fisher said. “But this has really opened me up. I never would have tried a persimmon before, and now? I love them.”

The program’s epicenter is a 45-minute class during which students prepare a recipe – and then eat their creations. One recent afternoon it was sun butter – a healthy substitute for peanut butter using sunflower seeds – on wheat bread topped with slices of pear, apple or persimmon.

“And what does fruit have that jelly doesn’t have?” program coordinator Elaine Fok asked her 28 young chefs.

A hand shot up and the answer rang out amid happy chewing: “Fiber!”

Stott is asking Book of Dreams readers to help her purchase a refrigerator to store produce and other ingredients and induction burners to allow for cooking in classrooms. She also wants to buy aprons for the students so they can feel more like chefs and keep their clothes clean.

“It seems like a small thing, but when you tie on that apron, it tells the kids that cooking is important,” Stott said. “And it’s fun. It’s like a little costume. In fact we have a saying here: ‘An apron is just a superhero cape worn backward.’”

2014 BOOK OF DREAMS

For more than 25 years, The Sacramento Bee's Book of Dreams has helped people and organizations in our community realize their dreams. Their needs can be as simple as a pair of shoes for someone who is homeless; holiday baskets for low-income families or a shiny, new bike for a child. Whatever the dream, you can help by making a donation today.

All donations are tax deductible and none of the money received will be used for administrative costs. The Book of Dreams fund is administered by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation. If you donate online, the Region Foundation will appear on your statement.

Need: Kitchen set-up for classes that seek to inspire children to eat healthy.

Cost: $4,475

Donate Now!

Download a pdf donation form

If you have additional questions, please call the Book of Dreams line at (916) 556-5667. Donations will be accepted through Jan. 16.

* To claim a tax deduction for 2014, all donations must be postmarked by Dec. 31. All contributions are tax-deductible and none of the money received will be spent on administrative costs. Partial contributions are welcome on any item. In cases where more money is received than requested for a given need, the excess will be applied to meeting the unfulfilled needs in this Book of Dreams. Funds donated in excess of needs listed in this book will fulfill wishes received but not published and will be donated to social service agencies benefiting children at risk. The Sacramento Bee has verified the accuracy of the facts in each of these cases and we believe them to be bona fide cases of need. However, The Sacramento Bee makes no claim, implied or otherwise, concerning their validity beyond the statement of these facts.

BOOK OF DREAMS WISHES

Here’s a list of wishes published so far in the series:

Dream: The nonprofit Communication Technology Education Center seeks funds for a speech-generating device to help people with severe language delays.

Needed: DynaVox T15

Cost: $6,000

Dream: The Yolo County Care Continuum’s Farm to Mouth program needs gardening assistance.

Needed: Funds for a greenhouse on the farm.

Cost: $1,500

Dream: Healing Hands, Healing Hearts nonprofit seeks help for its program that brings touch therapy to those with critical or terminal illnesses.

Needed: Equipment to help terminally ill patients.

Cost: $4,985

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