The carrot on the stick approach: Incentives offered for Fridley students to eat fruits and vegetables

Students participate in the Radio Disney kick-off event for the students Jan. 4. (Submitted photo)

Students participate in the Radio Disney kick-off event for the students Jan. 4. (Submitted photo)

Stevenson Elementary students in grades 2-4 are being encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables – and keep track of how many they eat.

HealthPartners’ four-week program, called the “yumPower” School Challenge, kicked off Jan. 4 with a presentation by Radio Disney to excite and inform the students about nutrition and the program.

“I wish it could be at every building,” said Mary Mueller, the Fridley School District Food Services director. “The kids got into it right away at the kickoff.”


HealthPartners provides the health benefits to the school district and alerts the district when they have programs available, but opportunities were limited, so only one school could be chosen for the program.

At Stevenson Elementary School in Fridley, students are challenged to eat five servings of fruits and/or vegetables every day. If a student doesn’t reach that goal, they are still asked to track the portions they eat each day.

HealthPartners provided tracking sheets and stickers so kids can mark off their servings. Students turn in their sheets weekly for an opportunity for prizes, such as pencils, note pads, rulers and small white boards.

Kim Gardner, Stevenson physical education teacher and administrator of this program for the school, said this is the first time the school has been involved in a program like this, but it’s been going over well with the kids.

“The kids enjoy tracking their fruits and vegetables,” Gardner said.

Schools can win prizes of funds, based on overall student participation; the greater the percentage of students participating, the greater the cash prize, from $200 for 50-64 percent participation to $500 for 95-100 percent participation. Gardner said she’s “pretty sure” that Stevenson will make that 95-plus percent category.

The classroom teachers help the kids every day with their tracking sheets, which Mueller described as “cute – one of those things that kid would like to use.”

Mueller helps support the program by going into the classrooms with a new fruit or vegetable to try each week, and she leads a lesson, about 20 minutes long, on nutrition.

“This week I did clementines, because they’re going out of season pretty soon. I’m trying hard to find things kids can do without help from an adult – they don’t have to cut it with sharp knife, it’s easy to access. Some kids already knew them as ‘Cuties,’ the brand, and they were excited to learn more about them and do all the sensory stuff,” Mueller said.

She said she was considering kiwis for an upcoming week of the program, but she wants to pick items the kids will actually want to eat after trying them. One second-grader, she noted, requested “fresh basil leaves.”

In a lesson, she leads kids through an observations process, going through what the produce looks like, feels like in their hand, smells like, how it’s different on the outside compared with the inside, and more. “It’s fun to hear the things they’ve tried on their own,” Mueller said. She noted one girl said she had tried tomatoes and made a “horrible” face.

“I said, ‘That’s OK, it’s OK not to like something, but you want to try it and see what you think about a tomato. … Do you like spaghetti sauce or tomato soup? OK, you like tomatoes – you just like them in different forms.’ Then we talk about raw versus cooked, and it opens the discussion about how you’re not always aware of when you’re eating fruits and vegetables in favorite foods,” Mueller said.

With posters around the halls, kids can hardly go anywhere in the school without seeing something promoting fruits and vegetables, Mueller said.

“Now when they come to the lunch line, they have a better understanding of why they’re being encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Mueller said.

“I do think they’re making better choices with their fruits and vegetables in the lunchroom,” Gardner said. She added that she thinks the students are taking advantage of the produce they can take at lunch.

Mueller said it’s fun for her to watch the collaboration between different people in the district and the different grants the school was awarded.

With the funds provided in a SHIP grant (Statewide Health Improvement Program), for example, the district has been able to purchase these fruits and vegetables for the weekly tasting lessons in the classrooms, Mueller said. For the past about seven years, Gardner said, Stevenson Elementary also has had someone from the University of Minnesota Extension program visit to talk to kids about healthy eating and nutrition. At the cafeteria level, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) installed new guidelines in fall 2012 for all children to take a half-cup of fruit or vegetables every day, so food service workers have been impressing the importance of those choices on students, Mueller said.

“So this (yumPower) fits with what we’ve already been working on with the kids, and they’re learning what they’re eating, why they’re eating it and what nutrition it offers,” Gardner said.

“It worked out really well, because it’s not just the lunch program against kids and parents. They hear it (about good nutrition) at breakfast, from the principal, in their classrooms – it’s been really cool and fun to see how it came together,” Mueller said.

She noted that, as a smaller district, Fridley probably couldn’t pull together a program like this on their own, so it’s been nice that they’ve been able to take advantage of the support from HealthPartners.

“I think it’s a great program that helps teach and reinforce (healthy habits),” Mueller said. “I like that the kids have to think about (the importance of fruits and vegetables) every day for four weeks. It’s a fun way for kids to learn about eating more fruits and veggies, and it’s what we have to do to combat childhood obesity – we have to switch the generation of empty calorie eaters to realizing healthy foods are good and taste good and keep you full longer. It has been a great program.”

The school challenge is one aspect of the yumPower program. Other HealthPartners healthy-eating initiatives involve free fruit and vegetable give-aways at 10 HealthPartners clinics and at a Saints baseball game; the online resource of, featuring cooking videos and recipes; eat-better tips via text messages; an iPhone app; a Facebook page; vending machines with healthier options; cooking classes; and an advertising campaign.


Contact Sarah Peterson at [email protected]

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