Written by J.P. Choquette

“It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.” This quote, made famous by Margaret Mead, is full of truth. There is a reason that individuals, even as adults, tend to gravitate toward or crave foods from childhood. These are familiar, known and expected.

What happens though, when families start to explore new food horizons? That was in part the basis of a new pilot project held over the summer in Richford. There, NOTCH Outreach Coordinator, Melanie Gross, led families on a four-week food adventure.

The purpose of the “Grow It, Try It, Like It!” program was to expose young children and their families to foods which they might have otherwise never try. Based on a national nutrition education model by the USDA, the local version of “Grow It, Try It, Like It!” brought together 10 families from Richford and surrounding areas.

The program ran for approximately one and a half hours once a week for four weeks. During each session, children and their families were introduced to a new food, like spinach, and invited to do a taste testing, Melanie said. From there, families cooked together, using the new ingredient in a dish. Then, everyone sat down to enjoy the meal together. Participants were encouraged to share their reactions to each new food they tried, Melanie noted. Did they enjoy it better before it was cooked or afterward? What changed? How else might they use this ingredient? These were just a few of the questions posed to the group.

After the meal, an employee of Arvin A. Brown Library read to the families. The book, Gross noted, tied in with the theme or food item that was explored that week. At the end of each session, the child was given their own copy of the book. That wasn’t all, though. “Each family got to take home the groceries to prepare the same meal at home,” Melanie noted, and the NOTCH funded the groceries.

Melanie, whose work history includes education and culinary arts, is thrilled that the NOTCH is offering this type of program to families in the area. “I’m super excited,” she said, “and I believe RiseVT is ready to do two more series.” The two upcoming series will likely be held in Swanton and Enosburg, Melanie said, and serve children and families from these and surrounding areas. While the pilot project focused on pre-kindergarten aged children through second graders, Melanie stated that there is also a teen series which runs six weeks.

Melanie’s enthusiasm for “Grow It, Try It, Like It!” is infectious. She worked previously with The Learning Kitchen, a program offered by Hunger Free Vermont. That, paired with her background in education and culinary arts, made this program a perfect fit for her skills. “I owned a café and I had the cooking and food experience,” Melanie stated.

But what about the “Grow It” component of the program? Melanie stated that each child was given seeds and little soil-filled cups to grow their own plants. They were really excited, she recounted, to see how much taller their plants were each week they attended the program.

Helping children—and grownups—try new foods is a great way to expose taste buds to unfamiliar foods. Melanie shared the story of a four-year old boy who loved the smoothie they made one session. In fact, he loved it so much that he asked his mother for a blender for his birthday.

In addition to running the “Grow It, Try It, Like It!” program, Melanie also works closely with the NOTCH It Up program. “This brings services to communities,” Melanie stated, “and is a way to bridge the food gap between school and camp.” She noted that in some less affluent areas, when school ends, children often end up going hungry. “Kids are often receiving breakfast and lunch at school, and sometimes dinner,” said Melanie. Notch It Up works hard to try to bridge the gap, providing meals for kids who might otherwise not eat.

“My role is helping families to understand what services are there and how to navigate that,” Melanie said. Notch It Up offers families wellness coaching, counseling, primary care and services of a pediatric nurse. The service focuses on children and youth ages zero to 22 and is a grant-funded program.

“I’d like to see more access to education regarding nutrition, healthy eating, creating meals that are affordable with local produce,” Melanie said of her hopes for the health of Richford residents. “It really builds a connection when kids are involved in the process.”

In her own life, Melanie and her family enjoy getting out in nature as often as possible to kayak, snowshoe and ski. “We’re definitely an outdoor, active family,” she noted.