May 18, 2009

Natasha Lucas Taste of the MonthBoiled shrimp, provolone cheese, fresh mandarin oranges - these items may sound pretty common to folks living in metropolitan areas. But, for those in rural communities, these items are hard to come by.

"Several years ago, I was doing a 4-H lesson on quesadillas, and the kids didn't have a clue what they were; we didn't have any Mexican restaurants here," recalled Natasha Lucas, family consumer sciences    University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agent in Owsley County. "I thought it was really sad that our kids didn't know about many foods, because they are just not exposed to much beyond the basics. I wanted to do some kind of food exposure program then but didn't have the funds."

That all changed about three years ago when funding became available through the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, so Lucas worked with Owsley County Middle and High School officials to start Taste of the Month. Each month Lucas and Sherry Becknell, Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program assistant in Owsley County, pick a hard-to-find food item and hand out samples during lunch time to seventh through 12th graders.

"Most of the kids will give it a try, and they've told me they look forward to seeing what we're going to try next," Lucas said. "We try to only offer healthy, fresh foods that aren't available in our grocery stores. For example, this month we handed out samples of fresh mandarin oranges. In our grocery store, you can't find that. You can only get the canned variety."

Owsley County Health Educator Oneida McIntosh said the program has really expanded the students' palettes.

"Here at Owsley County High School we really strive to educate our children about healthy food choices - in the cafeteria and at home," McIntosh said. "We want them to see that just because something looks different, they don't have to snarl their noses; they just need to give new things a chance. This small taste gives them a chance to change their perspective."

Whitley McIntosh, an OCHS junior, has been active in 4-H since fourth grade. She looks forward to the items Lucas and Becknell bring each month and also looks forward to hearing what's going on in 4-H.

"It's interesting to get to try new things you haven't tried before," she said. "I really liked the different fruits and cheeses."

Another junior at the school, Michael Hensley agreed.

"They give us a new variety of food to try," he said. "Our grocery store doesn't have choices like that. It's just a really neat experience being able to try new things every month."

Oneida McIntosh said she encourages students to seek out the items they try when they go shopping with their parents in larger areas, such as Hazard.

"Just like many times I may not have access to a lot of the foods I need for a particular recipe (in Owsley County)," she said. "I have to go somewhere else to get it. They shouldn't be too discouraged; just add an item to the shopping list to pick up while you're out."

Beyond the Taste of the Month event, Lucas also works with Oneida McIntosh in classrooms, where they teach lessons on how to prepare dishes with the foods they sample.