Maybe, just maybe, we’re on to something when preschoolers are asking for seconds of broccoli. This, they swear, is the case in the Head Start program at the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center in D.C., which I visited last week.
“Fresh broccoli – they eat it like candy,” head cook Evon Gaither told me in the center’s full-service kitchen. “They love collard greens. And last week, I stir-fried squash. They loved that.”
Now, even some grown-ups, most famously former President George H.W. Bush, have trouble choking down the much-maligned member of the cabbage family. So I’m not about to drink the (unsweetened) Kool-Aid and believe that little kids will beg for broccoli if only we’d offer it to them.
But something has to explain last week’s encouraging report out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, for the first time in decades, obesity declined among low-income preschoolers in 19 states and U.S. territories. One possible reason cited by CDC officials: the recent wider availability of fresh fruit and vegetables, instead of sugar-laden juices, for poor kids enrolled in a federal nutrition program.
So I went over to Mazique to see how they handle food and fitness, and I came away impressed by the rather simple principle they live by: Cultivate the habit of exercise and healthful eating while the children are young. Really young, like 6 weeks to 4 years old.
This is a heck of a good idea. One in eight U.S. preschoolers is obese; for black and Hispanic kids, the situation is worse. Children are five times as likely to be overweight or obese when they grow up if they have weight problems between ages 3 and 5.
Mazique kids don’t go home to nannies who cook them balanced meals and after-school sessions with personal trainers. “We serve the poorest of the poor,” Executive Director Almeta R. Keys said, adding, “And they don’t have the same advantages that other families do.” Some of the 4-year-olds I watched showing off their skills in English, Spanish and Amharic at last week’s graduation ceremony were homeless or living in transitional housing, she said.
So if anyone is going to make a difference in these kids’ lives, it’s their parents and the teachers at Mazique. Janet Unonu, who has been the program’s full-time nutritionist for 33 years, gave me a tour and the ground rules at the same time, starting with the small garden out front where the children help plant and harvest okra, basil and peppers that will later go into their meals.
What about exercise? The kids love Zumba, teacher Reby Franklin said, as well as other kinds of dancing or just jumping up and moving around. Is any of this going to stick when the little ones move on to a world of fast-food ads and video games? Mazique is hedging its bets. Parents are encouraged to take a six-week course offered by the program that teaches them how to read food labels at the store and cook healthful meals at home. One day, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Mazique and was pleased to see some of the children ask for seconds of broccoli, Keys recalled. Maybe this is a partisan thing. As President Obama noted just last month, it’s his favorite food. Not just his favorite vegetable, his favorite food.
I’m going to have to stick with chocolate chip cookies on this one. But don’t tell the kids.