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Clean plates: free lunch program teaches kids to give veggies a fair chance

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Free Lunches 01

Nadine Bayer, a nutrition and health educator with Winona Volunteer Services, talks with children before they eat this summer during the free lunch program at the East End Recreation Center in Winona.

It was cool to eat your vegetables at the East End Rec this summer.

The center’s first annual free lunch program, which ran three days a week through late August, featured family-style meals that encouraged kids to try new flavors. And it was a success.

“One highlight for me was watching one little girl eat her spinach,” said Nadine Bayer, nutrition and health educator at Winona Volunteer Services, which coordinated the meals and funding for the program.

This particular rec center patron was nibbling each leaf like a rabbit—which looked like so much fun that her spinach-shy friend had to try some too.

“Next thing you know, she had picked up some spinach,” Bayer said. “And she liked it.”

The goals for the free lunch program were twofold: to provide active kids with nutritious meals during the summer months, and to expose them to family-style dining—where words like ‘ick’ and ‘eww’ are definitely not cool, but eating spinach definitely is.

East End Rec staff and volunteers served as table parents, teaching kids how to set a table, pass serving bowls, say please and thank you, and have positive mealtime conversations.

It’s those conversations, East End Rec coordinator Lydia Boysen said, that stick with her the most.

“It’s the non-tangibles that point best to its value and impact,” she said of the program. “Hearing kids laugh, hearing kids talk to each other.”

Boysen said the numbers point to success too. Over the summer’s 29 meal days, about 710 people (repeats included) were fed with the meals and leftovers, which were available to kids who dropped in at the center throughout the afternoon.

The number of diners ebbed and flowed during the summer, but there were always fresh faces, Bayer said.

This summer’s feeding program, funded by a private donation, also served as a pilot project for the future.

Winona Volunteer Services executive director Sandra Burke said she and Bayer, along with Boysen, are already talking about how they can expand the program next year, by moving the mealtime closer to noon and reaching out to schools in the area to spread the word about the program. They plan on training more volunteers so the table manners are consistent across the board.

They’ve also talked about bringing brown bag lunches to city parks on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The menu, served up by Steak Shop Catering, won’t change much, but there are a few tricks Bayer is eager to try next year, like hiding black beans—nutrient-rich but unappealing to most kids—in taco meat.

Shh, don’t tell.

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