Over 14 percent of Virginia adolescents are overweight, with nearly 40 percent consuming less than the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early childhood is a critical period for the prevention of obesity and the development of protective behaviors such as healthy diet.

Thanks to a partnership between the New River Health District (NRHD) and the Virginia Tech Public Health Program, 20 local youth now have a better understanding of fruits and vegetables, healthy food preparation, and local food systems through participation in a 13-week summer program.

Recently wrapping up its third season, the health district’s Market Kids program engages families of children ages 6 to 13 in horticulture, nutrition, and entrepreneurship as a way to improve health outcomes. Master of public health students Harper Lovegrove, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Dylan Allanson, of Churchville, Virginia, served as co-coordinators of the program for their practicum, an experiential learning opportunity that serves as a bridge between academic training and applied public health practice.

Earlier this year, Lovegrove and Allanson applied for, and were awarded, VT Engage's John E. Dooley Student Engagement Grant, totaling $1,500. Each year, the grant funds highly motivated students or student teams planning to implement or expand community-based civic engagement projects.

“We chose to fund this project because the students had a strong connection to their community partner, Market Kids, and had proposed a project that addressed a community-identified need,” explained Catherine Cotrupi, VT Engage’s assistant director for student engagement. “These students created a summer-long educational experience for local children and helped support a great community initiative.”

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“This program is a great way for kids to learn how to grow vegetables from a seed, and it’s also about planting seeds for healthy behaviors that they are going to keep throughout their lifetime,” said Lovegrove, who is also pursuing certification in the Virginia Tech Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD). “It’s something that I’m really interested in because I love gardening, nutrition, and kids.”

"Market Kids has been a pleasure to coordinate and lead,” said Allanson, who is also working toward his DPD and pursuing a career in pediatric dietetics. “It has allowed me to practice community-nutrition education, planning, and evaluation, which is a large field within dietetics and public health. This is a great stepping stone for me for the future.”

Market Kids is based out of the Farmacy Garden in Christiansburg, Virginia, a collaboration of NRHD and Virginia Cooperative Extension. Participants in this year’s program engaged in a variety of activities at the garden, including a blind fruit-and-vegetable taste-test, a live presentation from a professional beekeeper, and a lesson on the basics of composting. Most weeks, the 90-minute class included preparing and eating a healthy snack.

Allanson and Lovegrove noted that one of their favorite parts of the program was the exposure to fruits and vegetables the children had never tried. "The first week, they made rainbow kabobs that included strawberries, oranges, yellow peppers, and pickled beets,” said Lovegrove. “Many of the kids had never tried pickled beets.”

The children also attended three field trips over the course of the program where they learned about sustainable growing and permaculture best practices, picked pesticide-free berries, and participated in an educational scavenger hunt.

“With learning outcomes such as increased self-efficacy in the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables, and improved perceptions of local food systems, the kids were exposed to new experiences that allow them to learn how to be healthier people,” said faculty advisor Kathy Hosig, associate professor of population health sciences and director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Research. “Additionally, the public health students who coordinated the program were able to serve the New River Valley and help to create a culture of wellness.”

To engage the children in entrepreneurship, Lovegrove and Allanson tasked them with creating their own group logo, which was printed on T-shirts and other marketing materials. The kids then wore the shirts during visits to two local farmers markets where they sold their grown produce and kept the proceeds they earned. The market events capped the summer program and allowed the kids to experience the entire life cycle of the harvest—from seeds to fruits and vegetables to market.

Nina Hoffmeyer, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an undergraduate student studying human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, chose to shadow Lovegrove and Allanson this summer.

“Seeing the work that they put into the program has strengthened my desire to gain a master's in public health,” Hoffmeyer said. “Working with the kids and seeing how much fun they have in the garden is so rewarding. It makes me believe in the power of small-scale community education as a means of improving the health of future generations."

Virginia Tech's Public Health Program in the Department of Population Health Sciences is administered by the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in partnership with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and is accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health.

As for the advancement of the program, Lovegrove has a strong vision. “I can't wait to see how Market Kids can grow in the future, here in Christiansburg as well as other towns in Southwest Virginia. My goal is to extend this program to the Plenty Food Garden in Floyd with a comprehensive curriculum that they can use next summer.”

Written by Sarah Orren