Melissa Graham of Purple Asparagus On Creating Healthy Habits for Life

  • July 25, 2013
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How one of our longtime partners, Purple Asparagus, spreads nutrition education across Chicago!

Healthy Schools Campaign and Chicago Public Schools recently reached a milestone in its efforts to support schools in meeting high standards for healthy food, physical activity and nutrition education. During our 3-year Go for the Gold Campaign over 200 schools, representing more than 40% of the elementary schools in Chicago have made changes meeting the HealthierUS School Challenge standards. This post is part of a series celebrating this accomplishment. We were fortunate to have wonderful partners, including Melissa Graham and Purple Asparagus. Read on for more about this great organization!

Did you know that chickpeas were known as ‘cicer’ in Latin, named for their resemblance to a wart on the Roman emperor Cicero’s nose? You learn something new every day about the food you eat, and learning about food should be an adventure. That’s the theory behind Chicago-based nonprofit Purple Asparagus, which has been bringing a dynamic free nutrition education program to dozens of Chicago elementary schools since 2005. For the past three years, Purple Asparagus has served as a key partner in supporting the Go for the Gold campaign, helping schools increase nutrition education opportunities for students and helping teachers learn how to incorporate healthy messages into the classroom.

Purple Asparagus Founding Executive Director Melissa Graham says the type of nutrition education on which Purple Asparagus focuses is not the nutritional breakdown of the foods children eat, but more about encouraging a love of trying new healthy foods and generating excitement about them. If children are excited about fruits and vegetables from a young age, it will lay the groundwork for healthy habits for life.

“Clearly, the schools are trying to create an environment that’s about health, but there’s so much out there,” Graham says. “Getting kids on that path to becoming good eaters and starting to develop a lifelong love of good food, that’s what’s important. That’s where you’re going to get good health outcomes.”

Purple Asparagus features a different fruit or vegetable every month, and students will read a book with their teachers, talk about how that food benefits their bodies and learn three facts and vocabulary words relating to that food. The next part is a guided tasting and a cooking class, featuring recipes students can complete at their desks. Graham asks all the students to at least take “one polite bite,” and ask students to use their words if they don’t like something.

“It’s not just ‘kid food,’” Graham explains. “We don’t want it to be. Our thought is, if 100 percent of the kids like 100 percent of the things that they’re trying, we’re not doing our job. We want them to try new foods, to experience new things and expand their palates.”

Purple Asparagus is awaiting the results of a year-long University of Chicago study, an evaluation of one of their classes throughout the year. One of the results Graham says they have seen is that 75 percent of the children in the class are saying that as a result of this program, they want to learn more about fruits and vegetables. They’re bringing the lessons home, too, and making the recipes they learned in their classes with their families. This was one of the most exciting aspects of Go for the Gold—watching students take the healthy habits they were learning at school through changes and the support of key partners, and sharing them at home.

Graham is involved with the good food and school food movements on a national level, and says Chicago is at the forefront of the movement to make schools healthier. “Chicago has been very proactive,” she says. “Changing the direction of 700-plus schools is not easy, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

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We thank Purple Asparagus for its dedication and partnership in making Go for the Gold a great success, and for all it does to make Chicago’s schools and students healthier. Even as Go for the Gold comes to a close, Purple Asparagus will continue to provide their fantastic nutrition education program to students across Chicago, and we encourage our friends to help support that work by attending the 9th annual Corks and Crayons event on August 25th!

Corks and Crayons is Purple Asparagus’s signature event, and one thing that makes it extra special is that the celebration (and ticket price) are designed to be a fun night out for the whole family. The evening will feature fun activities, Purple Asparagus-inspired dishes from all-star Chicago chefs, and Logan Pause of the Chicago Fire will host. For more information and tickets, visit purpleasparagus.com/corksandcrayons.