WHITE CITY — "What are taste buds?" nutrition teacher Lisa North asks the eager first graders at White City Elementary.
"Taste buds are the little bumps on your tongue that let you taste everything," says 7-year-old Jacob Howe.
Pleased by the class participation, the teacher follows up with, "Tell me something you don't like to eat."
"Peaches! Pickles! Avocados!" students call out.
"Every once in a while I want you to try peaches," North tells the attentive class. "Your taste buds will change and maybe in third grade, you will like them and I wouldn't want you to miss out on peaches since they are so good."
North is an Oregon Family Nutrition Program Instructor who travels to low-income elementary schools in Jackson County teaching five-week nutrition courses. The program is sponsored by Oregon State University Extension Service and the United States Department of Agriculture.
During a recent 40-minute class, North captivates students by reading a story about a goat that learns to eat right. The story generates a lively discussion about breakfast.
"Did you know you could eat any nutritional food for breakfast?" she asks. "If you wake up in the morning and you want to have leftover tacos from last night's dinner, that would be a great breakfast."
When she asks whether ice cream is breakfast food, 7-year-old Sean Matlock shakes his head no and raises his hand to answer.
"Ice cream gets us so hyper and it's bad for your teeth and it gives you brain freeze," he says.
While North teaches, program assistant Jeanne Evers prepares a feast of tortilla wraps with cream cheese and ham and invites the kids up to choose vegetable toppings.
"How brave are you today?" she asks 7-year-old McKenna Jeffries.
"I'm very brave and I'm strong," says Jeffries, flexing her muscles.
"Well this spinach will help keep you strong," Evers says.
When 7-year-old Meadow Engle steps to the front of the line and hesitates at the cucumbers, Evers draws on her experience as a master gardener to pitch the cucumber as tasting like a watermelon.
The OSU Extension team will teach at White City Elementary until March 21 and take their nutrition lessons to Rogue River Elementary in April and Mountain View Elementary in May. The program targets schools where 50 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"We're trying to create an awareness of what healthy foods are and how to make healthy choices," North says. "A lot of students don't see fresh fruits and vegetables, but see mostly boxes of processed foods."
One of her goals is introducing new foods, which she does with a game called Fear Factor. She tells kids to look, sniff and taste colorful samples such as pomegranate seeds, beets, jicama, seaweed and unsweetened coconut flakes.
"Kids need to eat fruits and vegetables to get vitamins and minerals that help fight diseases," North says. "Many fruits have vitamin C, which is good for building defenses and healing scrapes, cuts and bruises."
North taught at Jefferson Elementary School for 10 years before taking maternity leave. While at Jefferson, she introduced new foods to second graders, including Ryan Carl, whose dad, Scott Carl, teaches fifth grade at White City Elementary.
"Now whenever we go to the store and we see star fruit, Ryan wants to buy it because Mrs. North taught him to like it," says the grateful dad.
The OSU Extension program targets children at the right age, before they form bad eating habits, says Peggy Pedersen, assistant professor at Western Oregon University. She worked with the OSU health programs for four years and created a Web slideshow about children and nutrition.
"Children begin gathering information at an early age about food from people and the media and they develop behaviors, attitudes and practices early," Pedersen says. "By 11 or 12 years old they have entrenched habits. As we keep getting more thoughtful and purposeful in teaching children to make healthy choices, we can help formulate their ideas about eating in a way that will help make them more productive and healthy people."
On the Web: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/fcd/nutrition/onlinepresentations.php
Melissa Martin is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at email@example.com.