4-H kids in Union County aim to convince their friends and family that snacking on fruits and vegetables is not only healthy, but delicious too.
The young champions for these nourishing noshes are members of five 4-H clubs known as SNACZ clubs, which stands for "Students Now Advocating to Create (snacking) Zones." The Oregon State University Extension Service created the clubs in 2012 as part of a four-year research project aimed at preventing childhood obesity.
"We're testing whether children can be effective advocates for bringing about changes in their school and the small food stores near their schools to increase access to healthy snacks," said Nancy Findholt, professor at Oregon Health and Science University's School of Nursing in La Grande and principal investigator for the project.
Her research is focused on healthy snacks because it's not easy for kids to find them in the small, rural towns beyond La Grande, she said. In part, this is because there are no large grocery stores or supermarkets in these towns.
But what if kids became leaders in their communities to boost access to wholesome refreshments? Findholt's research project aims to inspire them to do just that. As part of her project, five clubs in Cove, Elgin, Imbler, North Powder and Union meet regularly to plan outreach projects to advocate for healthy snacking. To measure the success of those efforts, Findholt will evaluate whether schools have adopted new policies to encourage healthy snacking and whether food stores have increased their selection of healthy snacks.
Amelia Jones, 10, is a member of the club in Cove. Because of her yearlong involvement with it, she is consuming "a lot less" soda and candy and enjoying carrots with peanut butter, she said.
"It feels good that you know what's healthy and unhealthy and can help other people make healthy choices too, otherwise it will be a big world of sugar and fat and nothing else," Amelia said.
Youth such as Amelia are leaders in their communities urging their peers and families to make similar healthy choices, said Patty Herron, a 4-H youth educator in Union County who teaches the curriculum and coordinates the clubs.
The club in Union, for example, hosted a recipe contest for a healthy tailgate party snack. Members cooked up crowd-sized quantities of the top four recipes and served them at a Union High School football game. People nibbled on bran apple muffins, almond milk ice cream, green salsa and smoked turkey tortilla rolls, then voted on their favorite. At halftime, the winner received a large basket of fruit and vegetables while the crowd cheered. The tortilla rolls nabbed the top prize.
The club in Imbler challenged each grade at Imbler Elementary School to provide healthy snacks instead of the traditional candy and cupcakes at classroom holiday parties. All of the classes offered buckets of grapes, trays of fruits and vegetables, water and 100-percent fruit juices. One class featured a hollowed-out pumpkin stuffed with fruit-laden skewers to resemble a smiling face with a mop of hair. The classes with highest numbers of healthy snacks won soccer balls and Frisbees.
The five clubs also filmed a music video this spring to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" with altered lyrics like "So eat 'em. You'll be healthy, it's true" to play up healthy snacking. Theater students at Eastern Oregon University choreographed the dance moves and helped with vocals. You can watch the video on YouTube at Just Eat 'Em.
Additionally, club members are preparing educational booths – on topics like choosing water over soda – for a health fair that will travel to each of the five schools this spring.
Eventually, SNACZ clubs aim to inspire students to lobby for more healthy food options in local stores as well as school policies that increase access to healthy snacks, Herron said.