Want kids to eat healthier? Get them picking

The Agri-Leader had an article recently about getting kids to eat more veggies by involving them in home gardening efforts. I definitely support that idea, but I also think you should give kids a hands-on role in your produce selection - literally hands on at u-pick farms.

Here are a couple of examples for how it can work. My 10-year-old son and I went to the hydroponic farm Hydro Harvest in Ruskin a few weeks ago. We picked a few strawberries, obviously a popular item this time of year. We then went to the greens section and eyed monstrous-sized kale, Swiss chard, bok choy and lettuce.

Ever the kinesthetic learner, my son had to touch just about everything. He wasn't sure which greens he wanted to bring home, so he tore off small bite-sized portions to try different ones. "This could be like a buffet if no one was watching," he said. He liked the Swiss chard a lot, so he picked a few of its large leaves, and I added a few leaves of kale to our bag for good measure.

As we paid for our items in the store area, we also got ripe red and orange tomatoes and pumpkin seeds - a healthy item that we both love but that I only associated with Halloween.

Back at home, I served him unadorned Swiss chard with some of our meals that week, which he ate much like you would a celery stalk. He munched on the pumpkin seeds for his school snack.

Apparently, Hydro Harvest likes introducing kids to produce.

"Our main goal at Hydro Harvest Farms is to encourage children to eat better and to understand how important growing your own, or local seasonal food, is to our health and economy," said Terrie Lawson of Hydro Harvest.

Lawson sends out a weekly newsletter with news from the farm; the farm holds events to encourage kids to visit and has a contest going on now where kids can win prizes for sharing their garden experiences.

About two weeks after the Hydro Harvest visit, I took my son and his friend to O'Brien Family Farms in Bradenton, which has a hydroponics u-pick area, a retail store, and a honeybee educational area for kids. The boys were immediately drawn to the bees, and an O'Brien employee encouraged them to find the queen bee with a red mark on her body.

We then went to the u-pick area where the boys ran around. They seemed particularly charged about picking red, ripe strawberries. Before I knew it, we had about a pound and I had to tell them to slow down their picking. As now my son was a greens aficionado, he knew to get some Swiss chard leaves. From O'Brien's store area, we also chose intriguing-looking banana peppers and purple cauliflower as well as orange juice from local Mixon Fruit Farms.

After I bought our items, the boys sat down and munched on the strawberries like they were pieces of candy (in full disclosure, we also bought candy from an Amish vendor available at O'Brien). "These are so good!" my son's friend exclaimed about the strawberries. And they were - much fresher tasting than what I get at the store. He asked me to text his mom the name of the farm so they could return.

Had I gotten the various produce items at the supermarket, I think my son still might have tried them, but I know I would have had to egg him on to eat more than a bite or two - or heaven forbid, admit to actually liking them.

Like Hydro Harvest, the folks at O'Brien Family Farms know they play a role in educating kids about healthier eating. O'Brien hosts about 2,000 kids a year who visit on school tours, said Gray Bergquist, better known on the farm as "Grandpa."

"Most of the kids have never been out to the country," he said. The tours will introduce the kids to the bee area, show how produce is grown, and let kids pick strawberries. The kids also get to sample vegetables that might be less common or that have a bitter taste, Bergquist said.

Bergquist said he'll often see kids from tours return with their parents a week or so later.