Increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables in young children and reducing childhood obesity is a key national nutrition goal. This project will examine use of a sensory-affective, comprehensive approach to promote early childhood consumption of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. The direct correlation between fruit and vegetable consumption and lowering of obesity is yet to be established in this life-stage. However, the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled among children ages two to five (5.0% to 12.4%). Health record reviews by the Western Massachusetts Head Start nutritionist show that children are not achieving the recommended fruit and vegetable intake, and that overweight and obesity, as well as micronutrient deficiencies (vitamins A and C, and iron) may be prevalent. Fruits and vegetables are low-calorie, low-fat sources of vitamins (vitamin C, carotenoids), minerals, fiber and an array of phytonutrients and antioxidants.
This project's "Mass Farm Fresh" (MAFF) effort provides dietary vitamin A and C sources. Deficiencies of vitamins A and C can impact growth, development and immunological parameters. Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables is considered a natural enhancer of iron absorption. Complications of iron deficiency in childhood include poorer cognition, low school achievement, and increased behavior problems compared to children without iron deficiency. Promoting fruit and vegetable intake in early childhood is critically important, timely and significant to public health now and in the future. The importance of early fruit and vegetable acceptance is high. Our goals for MAFF (consistent with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture's strategic plan "Western Mass Feeding Western Mass and Beyond") include:
- connecting more people to local farms
- ensuring more local farm products for all
- promoting excellence in farm business practices; and
- inspiring people to get more involved in local agriculture.
In preschool children (2-5 years), the visual sensory characteristic of new foods is shown to influence their behavior towards them, such that children are more likely to model an adult eating a food which is the same color. However, there has been no research assessing how sensory exploration is linked with willingness to taste and preferences for fruit and vegetable varieties. Furthermore, this has not been investigated in the context of the local fruit and vegetable environment. Through MAFF strategies to promote exposure to fruit and vegetables (combined with culturally and developmentally appropriate nutrition lessons), young children may have higher acceptance of several varieties of (locally grown) fruit and vegetables and, as a result, levels of intake that are closer to meeting the USDA recommendations. MAFF program fruit and vegetable selections will have a strong local agriculture connection, be available in local point-of-purchase outlets and provide maximal opportunities for sensory learning and exploration in the children's natural environment (early learning classroom settings and the home environment). MAFF educational activities will satisfy the domains of early learning: verbal skills, conceptual and language skills, memory, and sensory exploration.