Chewing kale, swallowing spinach and blending broccoli may turn adult stomachs, but low-income children of Santa Barbara County are relishing such food adventures at farmer’s markets designed just for them.

Kids’ Farmers Markets, presented by Foodbank of Santa Barbara County since 2011, match volunteer educators with students at a dozen sites throughout Santa Maria Valley and Lompoc. Together, the next generation of foodies discuss fruits and vegetables, their sources and origins, nutritional values and preparation.

Then they work together to prepare healthful snacks before heading home with groceries and recipes to share with their families.

“In the past, we’ve said, ‘Let’s feed the hungry. Let’s give them food,’ but we realize we’re not teaching them anything if we’re just giving them food. So we’re starting young, making an impact so they make better decisions and become more food literate as they get older. That way they’re not grabbing the chips instead of carrots,” said Eloisa Chavez, Foodbank’s community programs coordinator.

“It’s much like learning how to read; in the beginning, these are all just ingredients, little components of something, but unless you know how to put the parts together to form a sentence, you’re not literate,” she said.

A recent $10,000 grant from Feeding America provided the program a welcome boost which, Chavez said, will help expand Kids’ Farmers Markets to three additional sites in Santa Maria Valley.

“We know that in the Solvang/Buellton area and some of the other schools, a curriculum for nutrition is already occurring, but we want to make sure that if it isn’t available, we step in and help provide it,” Chavez said.

According to a 2012 report by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, more than half of adults (54.3 percent) and one-third of teens (34.4 percent) in Santa Barbara County were overweight or obese in 2009, the last year for which this data is available. More than one-third (36.8 percent) of local 5th, 7th and 9th graders were overweight or obese in 2010.

The report noted that such rates were generally higher among lower-income groups and Latinos.

To reach these families, Foodbank has aligned Kids’ Farmers Markets with ACES, an after-school safety program for children from working families, Chavez said. Many of the students are on free- or reduced-price lunches.

“Their families may or may not be food sustainable. This program can be a help because the kids are taking home produce. Some of the families linger around to make sure they can take home what they can if there’s extra,” Chavez said.

Food for the program comes both from donations and Foodbank purchases. The program provides teaching materials, food prep supplies and recipes which may include a salad, soup, wrap or some other light, healthy snack that the kids will be able to recreate at home, Chavez said.

Volunteers keep the wheels spinning, and Foodbank is always on the lookout for more.

“We’re still looking for people with a passion for teaching kids. We can give them the rest of the information. You don’t have to be a nutritionist or registered dietician to volunteer,” Chavez said.

The unpaid volunteers are expected to spend 30 to 60 minutes in class with the students, then any additional preparation time volunteers can give to plan their classes and shop for groceries.

“It’s really fun, especially when we have the same kids month after month, and it’s really nice to see kids trying something new,” said volunteer educator Barbara Zinakorjian of Orcutt.

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