It was not long after Ohioans celebrated the state's bicentennial in 2003 that the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention recorded an alarming trend: by 2008, approximately 30 percent of the state's population was obese. Sadly, this tally included children.
According to reports in JAMA and statistics gathered by the CDC, national obesity levels increased among 6 to 11 year olds from less than 7 percent to nearly 20 percent between 1976-1980 and 2007-2008; adolescents and teens ages 12 to 19 didn't fare much better, with obesity rates increasing from 5 percent to 18 percent during the same timeframe.
For the team led by farmer Lee Jones and his father Bob Jones at the Chef's Garden in Milan, Ohio, a nationally lauded farm that works with chefs to grow more than 1,000 specialty herbs and vegetables, the message couldn't be more clear. "Educating and empowering children is critical to turning this into a healthy nation again," says Lee. Change was needed – and quickly. It needed to start with the country's youth. The answers were in the dirt.
The Veggie U was born out of the Garden's Culinary Vegetable Institute, a facility dedicated to bringing together chefs and farmers to share their knowledge and passion, both privately and publicly. The Veggie U curriculum was developed by teachers in adherence with the No Child Left Behind initiative, focusing on health and nutrition, and life sciences in fourth-grade classrooms. "As an organization, we're building up northern Ohio, and our goal is to go into Columbus and Cincinnati," says Veggie U director of development Molly Thompson. "We've been in 1,800 classrooms in 24 states and want to let that continue to grow organically."
While raising a family in California, Thompson became actively involved in her region, campaigning to bring better meals and education to students in schools. Her mother in Toledo told her about the Veggie U program, and it wasn't long before a meeting of the minds with farmer Lee Jones, when she told him, "my mission in my life is to change how we feed and educate our kids by creating nourishing, nurturing and engaging environments for learning."
Since becoming development director in 2009, Thompson has been tasked with developing the Veggie U program in Toledo's school system: "Basically taking it from one school system this year to six or seven districts in the coming years. It's really exciting."
Sharing her excitement is Kellie Johnson, a teacher at Woodland Elementary in Perrysburg, who has incorporated the program into her students' curriculum for the past three years.
"When you're dealing with 25 kids, and you're talking about plants and vegetables, you think it would be a good time for them to snooze, but it really catches their interest," says Johnson.