Ten-year-old Jaydon Alcantar and his classmates at Ochoa Elementary had a blast planting fruits and vegetables on a recent morning outside their school in Donna.

“It was amazing and so much fun,” Alcantar said. “We’re learning a lot about fruits and vegetables, how to plant them and why they’re good for us.”

The fourth graders from Ochoa and Singleterry Elementary gathered outdoors of their respective campuses earlier this month to celebrate and kick off an above-ground garden program. They were joined by parents, teachers and administrators who watched the children as they planted vegetables such as onions, jalapenos and tomatoes along with some fruits.

Alcantar’s mother Nancy Camacho saw the excitement in her son. “I am so happy the school started this project because it’s educating my son about where fruits and vegetables come from,” Camacho said. “It’s also motivating him to eat healthier. He is more willing to eat fruits and vegetables now.”

23Camacho, who suffers from diabetes, wants to keep her son from falling victim to the disease. She takes medication and gives herself insulin every day. “He sees when I take my meds and insulin,” Camacho said. “He sees when I poke my finger to check my sugar levels. Sometimes I’ll say ‘do you want me to do it to you? He says no. Ok then you need to eat healthier. If you don’t you can become diabetic especially because it runs in the family.’ ”

The above-ground garden planting is part of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Border Health Office’s Creating Healthy Eating Choices for Kids (CHECK) Plus! Program. With the help from an Aetna Foundation $100,000 grant, Border Health selected Donna ISD as the only Valley school district to implement CHECK. The program is now in all fourth-grade classes in each of the district’s 14 elementary schools.

“There is obesity in this age group,” UTRGV Border Health Director Doreen Garza said. “That’s why it’s important to teach these children early. Like our motto says, ‘teach it low when they’re young to prevent it high when they’re older.’ It’s all about education and prevention and giving the children the tools they need to live healthier lifestyles so they can prevent chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.”

29The first phase of the project required students to participate in five weeks of nutritional education sessions provided by UTRGV nursing students. “Through these nutrition and education lessons, the children learned about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables,” Garza said. “They learned about portion control as well and how to read the nutrition labels. We want to empower students so they can make healthy choices that they can incorporate into their daily lifestyle. Our goal is to get them to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption.”

The second phase consisted of students planting fruits and vegetables at their designated campus gardens. Finally, in the fall, when the children move on to the fifth grade, they will be able to harvest what they planted and work with Border Health to create nutrition creation sessions.

“At the end of the program, the children will have an opportunity to make their own tasty salads,” Garza said. “They will be using fruits and vegetables from their gardens. We’re also going to have them make some clever, creative smoothie concoctions. We’ll have a contest to see who has the best tasting. It will be educational and a lot of fun.”