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Learning the power of healthy eating

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - Twelve-year-old Scott Harris and his buddy Jonathan Cannon, 13, share a gargantuan interest in food. Not just gobbling up all things vaguely edible. These guys from south St. Louis are nutrition detectives. They read labels. They have the goods on hidden calories, fat and sugar.

"Look at this," first said one, then the other. In a grocery store dairy department recently, they held up cartons of yogurt and revealed it contained high fructose corn syrup. The sweetener isn't nutritious, but it packs a wallop of energy followed by a letdown.

This fairly arcane interest for two boys on the tip of their teens comes from a free after-school class the Saint Louis University Department of Nutrition and Dietetics offers at L'Ouverture Middle School, a St. Louis Public School.

Reaching out into the community and building good eating habits in children are part the university department's goals.

Each year hundreds of youngsters attend after-school programs, summer culinary camps and sessions that include growing food as well as preparing it. The department sponsors 50 gardens.

Pictures of youngsters weeding, measuring and mugging for the camera hold the spots of honor usually reserved for photo-perfect dishes in the department's just released cook book and fund raising tool, "Making It: Gardens to Tables." The book, which sells for $15, contains recipes from more than 40 of the area's top chefs. It also marks the department's 75th anniversary, and proceeds support scholarships for nutrition and dietetics students at Saint Louis University.

The recipes are the chefs' show stoppers, said Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman, chairman of the department. And if a reader prepares a recipe from each section - starters, salads, entrees and desserts - they will have a gourmet meal.

Mattfeldt-Beman cautions, however, that the chefs submitted their favorite recipes not just those that get a gold star for nutrition or ease of preparation. Mattfeldt-Beman wrote the book and is its senior editor. Joan Kiburz, a local travel agent, journalist and volunteer, is a contributor and associate editor.

Both women preach the gospel of healthy food to fuel young minds and bodies. Both say an enthusiastic child can prompt change in an entire family. Kiburz was raised eating carrot sticks instead of chips. She says her world travels have taught her that healthy cooking doesn't have to be bland.

Facts are at the bottom of Mattfeldt-Berman's zeal. When she was doing her doctoral research, she discovered that, on average, the clients of public health clinics consumed on only two servings of fruits and vegetables daily. That was excluding potatoes because they were usually French fries or chips and orange juice because it was often just orange flavored sugar water.

On their recent trip to the Schnucks on Grand Boulevard near Gravois Avenue, Scott and Jonathan were in pursuit of a healthy after-school snack. And they weren't having much luck.

One of the SLU graduate students who teaches them, Katie Pol, showed the boys and their classmates that a vegetable could be attractive. Pol selected a shiny orange bell pepper. She suggested they gut one half and use it as a boat for bits of broccoli, celery. Into the other half, they put carrots and a dab of ranch dressing. It looked good as a cookbook illustration.

The kids decided to give it a try.

Still the students - there were five that day, sometimes there are up to a dozen - are kids. Their favorite creation in class so far features chocolate. It's a granola bar. Condensed milk, rather than sugar or corn syrup, gives it sweetness. It also contains cranberries and three cups of oatmeal, which Pol noted is more oatmeal than in a commercial bar. (To see the receipe, click here .)

The girls from L'Ouverture were as enthusiastic as the boys.

Shaconda Westfall, 12, said she has sworn off chips.

Justice Williams, 13, thinks she may have found a career as a dietitian someday.

CleAsia White, 12, starts dinner each night for her family of seven. She is using recipes from the class. CleAsia is a very determined girl. If someone objects, she tells them she is keeping them out of the hospital.

Theresa Tighe is a freelance writer.