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Do you eat vegetables? Do you consume the recommended serving of veggies? Do you even like your vegetables?

If the answer is no, Eric Ruth, of the Kellyn Foundation, and Shari Noctor, president of Whitehall-Coplay Hunger Initiative, are trying to change that - at least for Whitehall-Coplay School District elementary students.

On April 25 and 26, members and volunteers with the foundation visited Steckel Elementary School to talk about healthy eating habits, discuss the benefits of eating vegetables and plant seeds in the garden boxes at the back of the school, built by the foundation’s members and volunteers in the fall of last year. April 25 was a rainy day, but the group didn’t let that stop them - they stayed inside and talked to third-grade students. April 26 was a nicer day, so students went outdoors and planted the seeds.

Members and volunteers of the Kellyn Foundation will visit Zephyr Elementary School May 21.

According to the foundation’s website, “The Kellyn Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with a mission to develop, support, facilitate and implement programs that encourage family and community physical and emotional wellness. We focus on healthy lifestyles with positive outcomes that can be sustained and taught to future generations, while helping to reduce the individual, family, community and national chronic disease burden.”

Ruth said Noctor was the “catalyst” for bringing the program to the elementary schools. She paid, out of pocket, for the Kellyn Foundation to conduct its program for the first year, which was three years ago. Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) provided the funds for years two and three.

“I just knew that [Ruth] did this with Kellyn (Foundation), and I said why aren’t they doing it here,” Noctor said. “So I approached LVHN, because we knew it would cost money, to see if they could help fund, and then we had a group meeting with Dr. Lorie Hackett (superintendent of Whitehall-Coplay School District), who allowed us in the first time. And that all came about because of the Hunger Initiative and CTC (Communities That Care).”

Noctor became involved with combating the hunger epidemic in the WCSD by first attending a few CTC meetings and helping to reduce the number of hungry students. Her mission got so big that she decided to break away and start the Hunger Initiative.

The Hunger Initiative has a 501(c)(3) status.

With the approval of Hackett, who said if Noctor could get the money, then she was welcome to start it up, Noctor contacted Ruth, paid the foundation and started the program. For the next year, Noctor was put in contact with the president of Lehigh Valley Children’s Hospital, who funded the next two years. The hospital funds the program for other school districts as well.

The third-graders planted cold-weather crops during the program at Steckel Elementary April 26, and, before summer break begins, the vegetables will be harvested, and students will be able to enjoy a healthy salad.

Ruth said, “They’re not going to get any fresher salad than this because it’s literally harvested, washed and brought in.”

The program for third-graders is called “Eat Real Food,” which focuses on the healthy benefits of eating fruits and vegetables; the program for fourth-grade students is “Healthy Choices,” where students learn to read food labels; and the program for fifth-graders is “Eating Out Survival Skills,” where students focus on being responsible for continuing to eat healthy at a restaurant or at a friend’s house.

Very soon, Ruth said, the garden part of the program will be set up for fifth-graders, but all three grades - third, fourth and fifth - have the in-classroom part of the program.

Another part of the program that all students participate in is the veggie challenge. In the beginning of the program, Ruth has students fill out a log regarding the likes and dislikes of vegetables. Students continue to fill out the log, and, over time, Ruth said, he sees students going from not liking a particular vegetable to loving it.

“It works. With the schools that have the kids do it, and especially when the teachers get engaged with them, these kids are ecstatic! I mean literally bubbling over with energy about the fact that I didn’t like this, but now I do,” Ruth said. “And the teachers who have done this with the kids are saying this didn’t change just a vegetable; this gave the kid the confidence to never give up with anything else, whether it’s math or science.”

Karen Nicholas, interim principal at Steckel Elementary, said because of this new program at the elementary schools, there is now a whole spectrum of careers - such as cooks, farmers and biochemists - that students may think about for themselves.

“Because there are so many pieces that [Kellyn Foundation] is bringing into the schools, we could not have accomplished that without all of your help - and that is what is so appreciative of all of us,” Nicholas said.

“I think when we are able to collaborate with other people who are in the community, it makes for better schools,” she added.

What happens to the gardens during the summer?

“The schools that we can, we try to get families (to take care of the gardens),” Ruth said. “You water, you weed, and you can harvest whatever you want. So by the end of the summer, the gardens are taken care of, and the food is staying in the community and going to the families who are doing it. When schools start back up, the kids can go out and help maintain it.”

In an email to The Press, Dr. Nate Hagstrom, with Lehigh Valley Health Network, said, “For the past five years, Lehigh Valley Children’s Hospital has helped bring the Community Canvas program to more than 25 area schools. Teaching students about healthy eating and then encouraging them to express what they’ve learned artistically helps this important information stay with them.

“I’ve seen a number of the programs for myself, and they are both educational and fun - a truly winning combination. The partner organization in this outreach - including the Kellyn Foundation, Lehigh Valley Art Spark and the local school districts - is terrific,” Hagstrom continued. “We proudly collaborate with them for ongoing education about the link between good health and good nutrition.”

Press photo by Stacey KochEric Ruth, of the Kellyn Foundation, talks with Jayden Haik, front, in Mrs. Razzis' third-grade class, about where seeds come from. Ruth continued to explain to students that there are three kinds of seeds - hybrid, heirloom and GMO.