Getting kids – and their parents – to eat more fruits and vegetables can be challenging. But staff members at the Bearcat Care Center in Booneville, Arkansas, are seeing it happen and are thrilled with the results.
The Bearcat Care Center, led by Mercy Advanced Practice Nurse Sunny Bray and Program Coordinator Lucy Ray, provides onsite care for students and staff within the Booneville School District. They are joined by Britney Krigbaum, LPN, and Patient Service Representative Haylee Appleton. Since January, there have been 320 patient visits to the school-based clinic, which has more than 1,150 students signed up for services. In addition to the primary care provided, the clinic offers mental health care along with dental and optometry services.
Bray and Ray have embraced a holistic approach to caring for those in the school district. When the opportunity arose to become part of a pilot program that provides more fruits and vegetables to staff and their children, they jumped onboard.
The school district joined “Vouchers 4 Veggies” through Communities Unlimited, a nonprofit organization serving rural communities across seven states. The group has a grant through the No Kid Hungry organization, which works with rural programs to get food to underserved areas. According to No Kid Hungry, one in eight children in the U.S. lives with hunger.
Vouchers for Veggies provides $80 monthly for each participant to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. By joining the program, the Booneville School District could enroll up to 50 participants, so Bray and Ray opened up the program to Booneville’s staff members.
Participants are required to have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes and have at least one child living in the home. They must also have monthly check-ins where they take part in surveys and have their biometrics measured.
“At first I thought, ‘I might be able to get 25 to sign up’ – I just didn’t know,” Ray said. “But we had a tremendous response.”
Participants have shown great enthusiasm for the program, sharing photos with each other of their children eating fresh fruit and recipes they’ve made using the fresh produce. One staff member was excited that he’d lost 12 pounds after just four weeks of healthier eating.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who are eating fruits and veggies they’ve never had before,” Bray said. “We’ve got kiddos eating things like berries and kiwi. Our kids are getting to try new foods, and the families are seeing the benefit of adding that. They are having more salads and a lot less food with high sodium and preservatives. They are adding the produce to meals along with healthy snacks.”
Bray added that participants are seeing the program as “an investment in their health.”
“I think some of the participants are seeing that it doesn’t have to be that difficult,” she said. “It may not be as convenient as stopping in a drive-through, but it doesn’t have to be time-intensive. It can be a sustainable change. That’s some of the feedback that we’re getting – this is something doable.”
Ray has sent out healthy recipes to participants, and many others are available on the school’s website. Ray and her team have enjoyed seeing the results. Ray also has put together a presentation using photos and data to share with Communities Unlimited to demonstrate their success.
Almost all of the money available each month for purchase of fresh produce has been used, Ray added, meaning participants are getting fruits and vegetables into their homes.
“The kids are getting involved in picking out the foods,” Bray said. “It’s not just the parents’ decision – they’re talking with their kids at home about what they liked. It’s really affecting adult health when we can change these behaviors at a younger age.”
The pilot program runs for six months, but Bray and Ray are hoping to be able to continue it when school starts in the fall.
“The best thing about doing this through a school-based center is you already have that established relationship,” Bray said. “In these small towns, you get to know everybody – kids, parents, grandparents. And with the staff, they’re already right here, so that made it easier to identify potential families than we initially thought. We’re introducing healthier eating at a young enough age which translates to better behaviors later on as adults.
The feedback from Communities Unlimited has been great, Ray added.
“I get the feeling that this has really taken off and done better than they imagined,” she said. “I thought there would be a rule book on how to do this, but as it turned out, we were able to make it our own program. Because it’s a pilot program, we had to develop it along the way. It has felt good to be able to do this. I had never heard of anything like this before. It’s a wonderful program.”
The Bearcat Care Center is open to all staff and students within the Booneville School District. Based at the elementary school, the center is open 8-11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and 8-10 a.m. Tuesday and Friday. Transportation to the care center is available for students at the junior high and high schools.