A program developed by the San Luis Obispo Food Bank gives students from preschool to high school the chance to learn about healthy eating through a mock farmers’ market.

The Children’s Farmers’ Market was held Feb. 16 at First 5 Preschool in Paso Robles. The Children’s Farmers’ Market provides fruits and vegetables donated by local farmers and residents to students that otherwise would not have access to them due to their socio-economic status. It has been held on a monthly basis at rotating school locations since its development in 2014. As a preventive health program, it aims to improve the nutrition of students and their low-income families.

“This program has made it so much easier for me to start cooking fruits and vegetables at home, beginning with getting my children excited about healthy food as well as giving me the opportunity to cook it,” First 5 Preschool parent Claudia Vergara said.

Similar to a real farmers’ market, children receive a reusable bag and mock money, or “Food Bank Bucks,” to be used to shop independently for produce to take home and share with their families. This leaves children with an educational experience disguised as an engaging activity, according to Heather Donovan, San Luis Obispo Food Bank’s children’s programs manager.

“We wanted to give kids the opportunity to learn about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet while putting it into somewhat of a game,” Donovan said. “This tactic works very well because kids like to play.”

The Children’s Farmers’ Market serves as an extension of the Nutrition Education Program, also developed by the San Luis Obispo Food Bank, working to educate the community about how to prepare healthy meals on a limited budget. The Nutrition Education Program provides healthy recipe books, interactive nutrition presentations and samples of recipes that involve a featured item the Food Bank clients receive at a distribution that day.

“The Nutrition Education Program is exceptionally beneficial to the families receiving the fresh produce because often times they don’t know what to cook with it,” Donovan said. “They don’t have recipe books filled with ideas and directions to cook all of these types of raw vegetables, so this program really inspires and teaches so many low-income residents of SLO County.”

The Children’s Farmers’ Market receives most of the produce it distributes from a program called GleanSLO. GleanSLO volunteers, many of whom are Cal Poly students, harvest or collect leftover fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste on local farms or in backyard gardens. At the end of the Children’s Farmers’ Market, extra produce is left at the sites for low-income families who may need more than just the bag of produce from their child, Donovan said.

“All of our sites are surgically picked by the percentage of the students at the school qualifying for free and reduced rate lunches,” Donovan said. “This program is certainly an educational opportunity for the kids but also serves as a vital addition to the students’ families health.”

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