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Registered nurse Derek Dimas learned kids need to eat healthier to help decrease the high rates of obesity in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas (50.7 % Latino).
By starting a program to help kids see fruits and vegetables as delicious works of art, students in schools across the city are having fun learning how to create and enjoy healthier snacks.
The Obesity Problem
In spring 2014, Derek Dimas, a nursing student at the time, was certain he wanted to make a huge impact on the overall health of his community of Corpus Christi in Nueces County.
While taking an epidemiology class, Dimas reviewed data and learned that the city had record-high levels of obesity, hypertension, and heart disease.
About 42% of local Latinos and blacks are overweight or obese, he said.
“For some reason, that statistic just stuck,” Dimas said.
He knew he wanted to find a local solution.
“I knew [high obesity rates] didn’t have to be that way,” he said.
Dimas thought about himself being a Latino and wondered why fellow Latinos and other minorities deal with such high rates of obesity.
He asked himself: “What can I do to make a change?”
Dimas began researching healthy foods and started brainstorming of possible solutions to combat the statistics of adult and children minorities dealing with unhealthy weights.
Majority-black or majority-Latino schools are significantly less likely to offer fresh fruit (61.3%) than predominantly white schools (87.8%), and schools with low socioeconomic status are far less likely (38.5%) to offer salads regularly than schools with middle (47.4%) or high (59.4%) socioeconomic status, according to a recent study from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Improving nutrition education in schools seemed like a good place to start.
A Closer Look at Food
A month after discovering the dramatic statistics of obesity, Dimas started educating parents and students on what foods and drinks to avoid, and the importance of obesity-related disease like type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and more.
Dimas talked often with Latino parents and kids in his community, using various connections that he had through friends and family, his campus’ organizations, including one of his own professors who had connections with the Corpus Christi Independent School District (CCISD).
Through onsite campus events like health fairs and fiestas, Dimas was able to use his own taste test booths to spend time connecting with Latino families one-on-one and learn more about what parents and kids needed to make the healthy choice the easy choice when it comes to food.
“Instead of having the tamales and tortillas, I would give away freshly sliced fruit and vegetables,” Dimas said.
But he realized parents weren’t truly heeding his preventive health messages. How could he get parents and kids to not glaze over his information when it came to learning about nutrition?
“I started brainstorming about a way to make it more interactive, and fun, and make children want to eat the various fruits and vegetables,” Dimas said.
Making Healthy Food Fun
In May 2014, Dimas started experiments at his booth at his university’s health fairs and various community events.
He let students create whatever they imagined from his fruits and vegetable offerings at the booth, essentially letting the kids “play” with the food.
Dimas started becoming an artist with fruit himself, crafting fruit creations like a spider made of oranges with two raisin eyes. He found that the kids he was working with really appreciated his fruit art ideas and wanted to develop more designs.
Dimas decided to start a “Fun with Fruit” art program to teach kids nutrition in school settings.
“I finally realized at this conclusion that if you associate fun with an activity then children, more or less, will be wanting to repeat that activity,” Dimas said.
Dimas made an appointment with Richard Torres, CCISD’s Program Specialist for health and physical education, tell him about his fruit art program idea.
They came to an agreement where Dimas could present Fun with Fruit at the annual CCISD coaches meeting in August 2015.
Dimas then reached out to nursing professors at area colleges, including Kathleen Crane, who teaches a Community Health Nursing course at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.
Dimas asked Crane if her students could volunteer with Fun with Fruit to help the nursing students achieve required clinical volunteer hours and also open the door for nursing students to give nutritional advice directly to kids. Crane agreed.
“When you’re working with kids, you need a lot of help,” Crane said. “They [nursing students] can help build community and can help teach the kids about nutrition and how it can be fun.”
Dimas also created a brochure for parents to explain childhood obesity and related issues, how to read a nutritional label, information on disease prevention, and meal planning.
Planning to spread his Fun with Fruit message online through social media outlets, he dedicated a few hours per week to post information about his program, templates for fruit art and advice on nutrition.
Dimas also provided online kabob fruit or vegetable templates and art ideas along with the nutritional benefits of the specific fruit or vegetable being used in the art project.
Fun with Fruit would be an interactive four-week program at each school to empower students to create their unique works of art with provided sliced fruits and vegetables.
During the program, students would be taught the nutritional value and benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. Then students could eat their works of art.
The ultimate goal of the program is to have children view fruits and vegetables as fun and more appetizing thus, increasing their daily intake of fruits and vegetables.
“I felt moved because these kids may not outlive their parents because of obesity,” Dimas said in a recent article. “I’ve heard of three-year-olds with diabetes and young people with heart disease.”
After presenting to the coaches in August 2015, 33 elementary and middle schools signed up to incorporate the Fun with Fruit program into part of their physical education (P.E.) classes.
“The key is to make [eating fruits and vegetables] something that they want to do not something that they have to do,” Dimas said.
Does It Work
Dimas and his volunteer group visit three different schools twice a week for four weeks and then move onto new schools to help kids create fruit and veggie kabobs during P.E.
P.E. Coaches allow Dimas and his nursing student volunteers’ a 45-minute class to teach and make the food art with students. The classes run from 80 to 120 students, where students pair up in groups with nurses and volunteers to co-create posters on healthy choices and design their fruit and vegetable kabobs.
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi nursing students were some of the first volunteers to help Dimas through the program, creating colorful posters that helped students discover a variety of fruits for each color of the rainbow (and other health topics like reducing sugary drinks and getting more active).
The template for the basic kabob design includes celery, cucumbers, strawberries, and grapes. Dimas explained he has found success in pairing the sweetness of the fruit with the vegetables for kids to enjoy the first taste tests. He also invites parents to attend the classes hoping to inspire healthy eating for the whole family.
“What’s surprising is you have kids asking for more celery or more cucumber,” Dimas said.
Dimas also allows time for questions. He asks if students have ever tried certain vegetables, and observes the difference in those trying new vegetables for the first time.
“I usually have 10 or 11 students who have never tried celery,” Dimas said.
Since starting to develop the program in May 2014, Dimas has directly taught over 5,000 students within CCISD about nutrition and helped numerous families incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diets.
“[Fun with Fruit] gets little kids really excited about fruits and vegetables,” Crane said. “It’s a good way to get across to them that there’re more things to eat than fast food, and tell their parents about it.”
Using his own funds to provide the fruits, vegetables, and paper plates to the schools he visits, Dimas explains to families that fresh fruits and vegetables only cost him around $20, helping them to see that eating healthy is not as costly as many people believe.
Dimas said many Westside CCISD students, who are predominantly Latino, have improved their diets, have been introduced to new fresh produce, and have improved access to healthy foods.
“I have several students, who, for the first time ever, are consuming celery and cucumbers,” Dimas said. “Not only do these children try the various fruits and vegetables, but they ask for seconds.”
Dimas’ art program has continued into its second year at CCISD, fueling kids’ brains with fruits, vegetables, and nutrition education. He plans to extend the program into as many CCISD schools as time and volunteer staffing permits.
Crane explained that Fun with Fruit is a great program and she is willing to have her nursing students continually volunteer in the future.
Other schools in the area, including Flour Bluff Elementary School, have also reached out to Dimas, interested in starting Fun with Fruit at their school. Dimas explained he is happy to share what he has learned with other schools, showing to them what has worked for him and how to run the program successfully.
Dimas is confident he’s making a big health impact in his community.
“As I was collecting my material at the conclusion of my program, a parent approached me and said the following: ‘I want to let you know that yesterday, as I was grocery shopping with my child, we passed up the fresh produce section of the grocery store and for the first time ever my child asked me to buy him cucumbers,’” said Dimas. “This, to me, is the essence of what my program has done for others.”
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.