Food & Fitness creates access to healthy lifestyles

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Pete Kerns, Turkey River Farm, encourages students to sample a homemade veggie pizza. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker 

Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness initiative is on a mission to create vibrant communities where the healthy choice is the easy choice. 

The program has brought people in Clayton, Allamakee, Chickasaw, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties together to make Northeast Iowa a place where people of all ages can have access to healthy, locally-grown foods, with abundant opportunities for physical activity where they live, learn, work and play.  

Haleisa Johnson, Early Childhood Program Coordinator, Luther College and Northeast Iowa Community College, has over 30 years experience in healthcare and healthy lifestyle education. She is committed to working with parents and providers of young children to encourage a healthy environment now and in the future. She noted, "Early childhood is one of the most developmentally significant times in a person’s life. Many of the taste preferences we have as adults are established when we are young. Most of them are solidified by the time we start school." 

Exposing children to a variety of healthy foods is a key component to developing lifelong, healthy eating habits. She explained, "It is important to expose children to healthy foods early on. Not only can this exposure develop lifelong healthy habits, research shows that healthy, local foods can also improve academic scores and health outcomes."

Local Food, Healthy Kids 

Living in an agriculturally rich area does not guarantee every child has access to healthy choices. "Despite these advantages, Iowa has low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption and high rates of obesity," said Johnson. "The Local Food, Healthy Kids initiative is working to improve this situation. The program links farmers and child care providers together to get more local, healthy foods into the hands of young children," she added. 

Iowa Food Hubs 

Local Food Made Easy

Since 2012, the Iowa Food Hub, as part of a nonprofit mission, has partnered with area farmers bringing their healthy, locally grown food to schools, colleges, restaurants and grocery stores. Johnson explained, "Food hubs, like the Iowa Food Hub based in Decorah, are behind the scenes helping get food produced by local farmers into the hands of people in the community. They are an important part of Iowa’s local food system; however, there are very few of them across the state. It is difficult for food hubs to survive in Iowa because there is a lack of infrastructure and support from leadership to strengthen Iowa’s local food economy, leaving the system fragmented and underdeveloped." She further noted, "The Local Food, Healthy Kids initiative has been studying this fragmentation and has recently released policy recommendations that would make connections to support the state’s local food system."

Heathy child advantage

Research shows that a healthy, happy child has better attendance, performs better in the classroom, and experiences fewer behavioral problems.  There is plenty of evidence demonstrating how good nutrition and physical activity are key components for students to thrive.    Parents, teachers, friends, and community members can help ensure our children get the support they need. Steps to take involve walking with your children, sharing a meal in their school cafeteria, involving them in meal planning and cooking, planting a garden together, or assisting with a community garden, and contacting your child's school to learn more about their wellness programs.

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