Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Look Back at Our First Season of Sprouts

Sprouts was a new initiative that we started at the market this season. A children’s nutrition program, it was designed to empower kids to make their own healthy eating decisions, to educate them about where their food comes from, and to encourage them to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Each week that children came to market, they picked up a wooden token that was worth $2 and spent it on fruit, vegetables or food plants, entering into a dialogue with farmers. Sprouts families also received child-friendly recipes each week that were designed to teach basic cooking skills and get children more involved in meal prep and planning at home.

Developing our Sprouts program this year was one of the most rewarding things we did at the market. It was wonderful seeing the joy with which the children picked up their tokens, the pride with which they spent them, and the sense of ownership with which they reported back on their experiences to our Sprouts volunteers. Empowering children to make wise nutritional decisions, felt really good.

Our youngest Market Volunteer!
The neat thing about the Sprouts Program was the set of unexpected outcomes that happened. We had one Sprout who loved being a Sprout so much that he asked to volunteer at a market in September. Our youngest market volunteer yet, he brought along his Lego men to help, and he sat at the Sprouts table with one of our high school volunteers, handing out tokens (while his mom and brother stayed nearby, handing out food bank info flyers to shoppers). Apparently, it was his idea… and he didn’t want his mom’s help! So the program itself both modelled and inspired volunteerism.

Siblings also worked together to make bigger purchases. Time and again we saw brothers and sisters pooling their tokens to make a larger item purchase together. There were the brothers who showed up every week, no matter what the weather, who wanted to grow mint for their smoothies. There were the sisters who bought a basil plant for their backyard garden.

Then, there were about a dozen Sprouts families who, on the day that we hosted our annual Plant A Row, Grow A Row harvest collection for Edmonton’s Food Bank, pooled their tokens and bought vegetables to donate that day. Our market, and our sponsors’ act of giving tokens to the children, inspired them to turn around and give to those who were less fortunate. That came as a big surprise to us! Our Sprouts were learning at a young age how to contribute and how to build community. And it was the Sprouts program that was the vehicle for that important life lesson.

Sprouts also drew attention to the bones of our market: those hard-working fruit and veggie farmers. We were thrilled with the way they jumped on board. Every single fruit, veggie or food plant farmer wanted in on the program, even though we were asking them to make concessions to the children to make their $2 token go farther: concessions that would cost them money. We never had to convince them.

Leona of S4 and her generous idea!
At the very first market day of the season, for example, S4 Greenhouses brought little bags made up especially for the Sprouts filled with a cucumber and a rainbow assortment of mini tomatoes: a generous amount of product, thoughtfully packaged just for the kids! Then later in the season, they began a game of hide n’ seek with our Sprouts, decorating mutant vegetables with googly eyes and hiding these characters in different places in their stall each week for our Sprouts to find. They were so thrilled when, at the last market, one of our Sprout hoarders came and spent 10 of his tokens at their booth.

Being nature’s candy, we assumed that most children would go for fruit, once the fruit farmers showed up on the scene in June. But there were a significant number of children who continued to spend their tokens on food plants and vegetables. The veggie farmers were positioned farther away from the Sprouts check-in tent than the fruit ones were, in the market’s layout. By choosing veggies over fruit, not only were the kids consciously holding out for those veggies, they weren’t getting sidetracked in their determination by impulsivity. That was very impressive!

This Sprout made a game of hiding his purchase and
making our volunteers guess what he had chosen when
he reported in at the Sprouts table.
One of the things that we see as our mandate, with our market’s focus on community development, is that we give our volunteers a quality volunteering experience. Working with the Sprouts program, and seeking out and interviewing a Sprout of the Week, were some of those gems. The children who were being interviewed loved the attention: they felt valued. Articulating what and why they did something reinforced a child’s behaviour, so the parents loved the attention that their kids were getting because it reinforced the healthy eating values that they were trying to impart to them. The volunteers loved engaging the children in a meaningful dialogue, and it gave them an opportunity to establish a relationship with the Sprouts families, making their volunteering feel meaningful and rewarding. And those hopscotch patterns leading up to the check in table? Why, they got more and more elaborate and creative each week!

We were so thrilled with these, and many other positive outcomes. This year was our pilot year for Sprouts… a year to see whether or not we could get the program off the ground, fund it, and run it successfully and creatively. We were able to open up the program up, in stages, to over 400 children, thanks to the generosity of our sponsors. And we are most definitely running it again next year!

A great big thank-you goes out to Dr. Darcy Dietz of Towne Square Orthodontics, who gave us a generous donation that let us get the Sprouts program off the ground this year, and to all of our market sponsors. Without these financial sponsorships from the community, we could not run our creative programming at the market.

This winter, we will be working together to figure out ways to open up the program to more children each week. If you would like to sponsor our Sprouts program, we welcome your financial help! See our website for creative ideas and opportunities that we have created for you at Help us reach even more children!