Project LEAN encourages kids to eat healthy through hands-on fun

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

The strawberry has been the undisputed champ at Ring Lardner Middle School in Berrien County for the past two years. Mirroring the annual March Madness in basketball, the school has staged a fruit-and-veggie challenge by serving fresh fruit and vegetable samples every day from local area farmers, with students voting for their favorites. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Evan Winkler, Ring Lardner’s assistant principal. “Kids are eating things I never thought they would eat.”

A Ring Lardner Middle School student participates in a March Madness tasting activity.

Enjoyed by students and teachers alike, the fresh, healthy snacks are the result of a nutrition-education program called Project LEAN (Linking Education, Activity and Nutrition). The goals of Project LEAN are simple: to get students to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to be more physically active.


And that’s exactly what’s happening in intermediate school districts in Southwest Michigan, involving 12,000 students, their families, and their communities. Project LEAN is funded primarily with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.


“It’s a wonderful program,” says Tom Richardson, administrator for business development and partnerships for the Van Buren Intermediate School District (VBISD). “We have seen such changes in kids’ behavior. If a teacher brings in unhealthy food or drink for their lunch, kids will tell them, ‘That’s not healthy. You shouldn’t be drinking that.’ They’ll be the first ones to say something. Kids can be brutally honest.” Richardson and his staff work with food service directors to incorporate more nutritious foods and snacks on school menus.

Ring Lardner Middle School students participate in a March Madness tasting event.

To accomplish the program’s goals, schools provide nutrition education, where kids participate in nutrition lessons, nutrition-themed book readings, food tastings, and movement activities. The curriculum emphasizes hands-on learning and making healthy recipes, like watermelon salsa, served with tortilla chips. “Most students had never heard of a watermelon salsa, but the reaction was phenomenal,” Winkler says. “They couldn’t wait to get home and make it for their families.”


Richardson and his staff also work with teachers outside of an inspired by their SNAP-Ed work to bolster physical activity in and out of the classroom. For example, one school raised funds to create a fitness center at the school, and another decided to create a morning walking program for students and parents. The walking program was based on a Pure Michigan theme, with the goal to walk the distance it would take to reach important locations in Michigan. More than 115 students and parents walked together one morning. Within a week they had walked the miles it would take to reach their “destination” – Lansing. They followed up by walking enough miles to reach the Mackinac Bridge and then the Upper Peninsula.


Richardson notes that Project LEAN engages parents as well as students. All of the lessons, no matter which subject, have activities that students take home and share with their parents, reinforcing the lessons they’ve learned.


“How do you encourage healthy snacks?” Richardson says. “You educate parents and you work with schools and teachers. It’s not that hard. We know that taking a brisk walk before tests is good for kids. We know that by letting them do something as simple as walking, they’ll perform better on tests. Why not go back to basics? Get them active. Give them healthy food. That’s the conversation. We’re encouraging schools to go back to what we used to do.”

Ring Lardner Middle School students record points for March Madness.

The schools are not working alone. They’ve reached out to farmers and community activists, and created partnerships with business and industry, government agencies, faith-based organizations, and communities. “This is a collaborative project. We have been able to talk, to collaborate, to cross boundaries,” Richardson says. “The more we work together, the more resources we can provide.”


In Covert, one of the most diverse communities in Michigan, is one of the best examples of how Project LEAN is transforming a community. Farmers have been showing up at Covert Public Schools with fresh fruits and vegetables: apples, cherries, blueberries, peaches, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes. They hand them out to kids in classrooms and hallways, and make sure they’re available on teachers’ desks and in the principal’s office. “I told my farmer friends that I want them to bring everything but grapes. Kids can’t help but throw grapes,” jokes farmer Barbara James Norman, the former food service director and 4-H leader whose family has been growing blueberries since the 1940s.


Norman has rallied not only farmers, but other residents along the Lake Michigan shoreline to participate in the program. She’s pushed for adult exercises and other classes at the senior center and is lobbying to open a gym at the community center. She’s also working to revive a community garden and to encourage the town’s two gas stations to offer healthier foods.


“If you don’t have a car, you walk to the gas station. Naturally, you’re going to eat the junk food, if that’s all they’re selling,” Norman says. “For a town and a county that grows so much fruit and vegetables, that doesn’t make sense. We should have fresh fruit and vegetables.”


Richardson sees Covert’s efforts as a prime example of how Project LEAN transforms students, families, schools, and communities.


“Project LEAN is not only changing the lives of kids but transforming the lives of families,” Richardson says. “Our SNAP-Ed partnership with Michigan Fitness Foundation has been a catalyst for improving overall health in Van Buren County. The kids are going home and educating family members. The family that eats together, stays together. It’s been a fun transformational change.”


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