Sprouts program goes national

Published 7:42 am Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Heidi Portz helps her daughter Ali Portz, 6, harvest some basil at the Sprouts Get Out and Grow Program's open house last year. -- Herald file photo

A youth health initiative started in Austin has sprouted across eight states.

Sprouts Get Out and Grow, a garden and cooking program for children, will launch its second season with a planting party at Hy-Vee from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday — postponed from a scheduled kickoff Saturday due to weather.

But the kickoff isn’t just in Austin this year, as Austin’s group inspired more than 50 new community gardens formed by Hy-Vee dietitians and managers.

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“It’s actually been probably one of the better programs that we started throughout Hy-Vee land,” said Austin Manager Todd Hepler.

The idea for a community garden at Hy-Vee to teach children healthy eating practices first came up when Jen Haugen interviewed for the dietitian job at Hy-Vee. She told Hepler the gardens were one of her dreams as a dietitian.

“I have a strong passion for helping kids be healthy,” she said.

That passion is reaching outside Austin this year, as Haugen is helping many dietitians at other Hy-Vee stores set up similar gardens. She’s even shared notes she used to guide the first year of the program.

“I’m just happy to help other stores and dietitians get the program off the ground,” Haugen said. “We’re kind of the leader here in Austin because we’re the first store that did it.”

Get Out and Grow has changed in its second year. Hy-Vee will partner with The Hormel Institute to promote vegetables and fruits known to help fight or prevent cancer.

“We’re really excited about that partnership,” Haugen said.

Institute scientists will come out during the summer to interact and talk to the children, especially about vegetable with high amounts of anti-oxidants and cancer fighting abilities like tomatoes, onions, broccoli and jalapeno peppers.

Along with Austin Public Schools classes that come to work on planting, the YMCA will bring groups of children to Hy-Vee this year.

Haugen said Sprouts was a success in its first year and reached more than 80 area children. She said the program increased the children’s knowledge about vegetables and foods, and it helped introduce them to foods they likely wouldn’t have tasted otherwise.

“Kids were also directing their parents in the store to buy different things,” she said.

One family was cooking two meals a week prior to Sprouts, because the children were picky eaters and didn’t like trying new foods. After the program, that family is only cooking one meal, and the children are more willing to try new things.

“There was lots of success,” she said.

Like last year, Haugen said they’ll focus on one key food each week, but it will likely be different foods than last year, in case the youngsters come back.

“We can help them create good habits,” she said.

Hepler, too, said the project was successful in its first year, and he said the success is due to Haugen’s initiative.

“It is very unique. It’s the first of its kind and Jen has really spearheaded the whole thing,” Hepler said. “We’re very proud of Jen and everything she does.”