After a 2012 study in Hartford found 37% of pre-school age children were overweight or obese – well more than the national average – the “Little City Sprouts” program was hatched. It’s an Early Prevention Program that’s a joint effort of the city of Hartford, UConn Health, and Hartford Food System.
“Little City Sprouts is a nutrition cooking and gardening education program for preschool students in the Hartford area,” said Tilly Story, a Program Coordinator for Hartford Food System, “Right now we’re in ten centers and we reach about 350 kids a year.”
The goal of the program is to start children down the path to healthy eating at a very impressionable age, before bad habits sink in, and at this age, the way to do that is to have fun.
“My class loves Miss Tilly,” said Allyson Miller, the lead teacher at The Salvation Army’s “The Right Place Community School For Young Children” in Hartford, one of the school in the program, “When she walks in the classroom, [the kids shout] “Miss Tilly’s heeeere!” They’re banging on the window for her.”
“I walk by I go sign in and they know we’re about to start talking about fruits and vegetables, they get very excited,” said Story.
There are three facets to the program, nutrition, cooking and gardening. Miller said the gardening part is what really engages the children at this age.
“So every spring, we actually plant our gardens … and the kids pick which ones they like, which ones they want to see,” said Miller.
“Kids love to get messy … show them a shovel and they just - everything else goes out the window and they want that shovel and they want to start digging in the dirt,” said Story, “They really develop a better understand of where the food comes from and that really excites them. There’s a big disconnect, even with adults where you go to the grocery store and you don’t even think about where it comes from.”
Story said the children often take their excitement for the program, and what they’ve learned, home with them.
“It also helps that they go home, talk to their family about it, and then it kids of starts that conversation at home as well,” she said.
“If we’re at the house, he’ll be like, ‘Nana, you got to eat your vegetables, too, so you can be big and strong,’ “ said Kristen Aiken, a parent of a child in the program.
“Little City Sprouts” is still a young program, but it’s already helping to move the needle in the right direction. A follow-up study in Hartford, a couple years later, found that the number of obese and overweight children had dropped from 37 percent to 32 percent.