AUSTIN, Minn. — When Hy-Vee  dietitian Jen Haugen launched a kids’ garden last year in a small plot of land next to a Hy-Vee store here, she had no idea she was starting such a run of similar efforts elsewhere in the 234-unit chain, she said recently. Nor did she know that her kids’ garden would spearhead a corporate effort to help support community gardens.
That’s what has happened. It’s estimated that about 40 more Hy-Vee stores got kids’ gardens underway this past summer.
It’s notable that here at the Austin store, Haugen has attracted two new sponsors, has taken on youngsters from a nearby middle school to join her 3-to-9-year olds in their weed-pulling, planting and learning project. The kid count now comes to 150, up from 80 in the summer of 2011.
“The children’s garden is a good example of a valuable program that started at grass roots level and has spread out to other stores,” Ruth Comer, Hy-Vee’s assistant vice president, media relations, told SN.
“Omaha and Dubuque started up similar projects pretty quickly,” Comer said. “Each of our stores has autonomy to do what they want, and we have 200 dietitians who have a tight line of communication.”
The chain’s dietitians, many of whom have followed Haugen’s lead with their own gardens, generally have been the initiators of such projects at their stores, with help from their store directors and some associates.
Read more: Hy-Vee's Children's Garden Project Reaps Rewards 
Comer talked about the multiple benefits of the children’s gardens.
“They bring people into the store. They see the gardens and want to know what’s going on.” They’re also a reminder of Hy-Vee’s community-consciousness, Comer pointed out.
Comer said the kids’ gardens get kids to eat better, introducing them to vegetables they may not have tried before, and may even help fight childhood obesity.
“They’re learning about where their food comes from, and they’re learning about local foods,” Comer said. Research has shown that kids are more willing to eat what they plant, Comer said in an earlier interview.
At the beginning of this year, as Haugen planned her second season of children’s gardening here, she held a webinar on the subject, and, in conjunction with other Hy-Vee dietitians, she put a manual together to show others at the company how to start a like project.
“We, at corporate, then had the manuals printed so everybody in our company could have them, and some have taken it and run with it,” Comer pointed out.
Read more: Hy-Vee Builds Community Garden 
A recently launched corporate program aimed at aiding community gardens, is an off-shoot of the children’s garden idea, she said
“Now we’ve tied the effort into our One Step program, a cause-marketing program.” Customers buying certain One Step-labeled items are informed that a certain amount of the proceeds will go to a good cause that affects the environment in a positive way.
“For instance, for every five-pound bag of potatoes bought, part of the proceeds goes to help fund community gardens,” Comer explained, as she offered an example.
“A Des Moines school began planting a garden. It was their program, but we got involved by setting up a plan for them, and supplying tools and seeds,” with proceeds from sales of One Step potatoes.
When Haugen started her kid’s garden project, “Sprouts — Get Out and Grow,” here last year, it wasn’t long until children were leading their parents into the produce department at the store here to look for such unlikely items as kale, watercress and Swiss chard.
That’s because the program is more than a hands-on gardening project. One of Haugen’s objectives was to introduce children to vegetables they might not be familiar with, vegetables that their parents might not even be familiar with.
The kids planted some familiar vegetables, but Haugen made sure some of the plants were not so familiar. Swiss chard, acorn squash, basil and cilantro, for example. Even before harvest time, Haugen brought out some vegetables from the store’s produce department to see how many kids could, for instance, identify Swiss chard. It got 30% to 40% recognition, she said. Even some parents didn’t know what it was.
Cooking With Kids
Since Haugen wanted children to taste different vegetables, cooking or assembling salads were part of the day’s agenda.
“This year, we had them cooking and pureeing cauliflower, and mixing it with macaroni and cheese, to make it healthier. We didn’t try to trick them. It was all transparent. They cooked and pureed the cauliflower, did the mixing, and then tasted it,” Haugen said. The result: they all like it.
This year, with almost twice as many kids involved, scheduling became a little more of an issue. To make things manageable, Haugen keeps the number of kids actually doing hands-on gardening down to 12 to 15 at a time. The garden plot at this store is just 40 by 60 feet.
She gets help in supervising the kids from store director Tom Hepler, who helped her set up the garden plot that lies alongside the store.
“When I saw him building a wall [for the raised bed garden], I knew that this was going to be a permanent project,” Haugen told SN.
This year, with the local YMCA and The Hormel Institute, a cancer research center (that has no connection to the Hormel manufacturing facility here), as new sponsors, Haugen has received help from both organizations in the form of volunteers to help teach the kids.
“We had Hormel Institute speakers talking to the children about the cancer-fighting properties of some vegetables,” Haugen said, “and we — through a distributor — were given some ‘Burpee Boost’ seeds that have been developed as cancer-fighters.” Haugen told SN that this year, Hy-Vee has printed pamphlets and information sheets for the kids to take home, hopefully educating parents, too, about fresh vegetables’ qualities.
Read more: Fareway, Hy-Vee Iowa Stores Earn Blue Zones Label 
At harvest time this year, Haugen took a survey of the children-gardeners to determine what they liked best about her multi-pronged program.
“The responses,” Haugen said, “were almost equally divided by thirds. One third liked the [hands-on] gardening best, another third, cooking, and another third liked doing it all.”
What was equally encouraging was what she heard from parents, Haugen told SN.
“We did an evaluation questionnaire online for parents.”
When asked if they noticed any difference in kids on the days they went to the garden, 90% said the kids talked about what they did, 61% said their kids were more excited about working on recipes with them at home, and 52% said they noticed positive changes in their kids’ attitudes toward fruits and vegetables. A full 48% said they were offering more fruits and vegetables at home, 44% had their kids cooking with them, and an impressive 35% said they had started growing vegetables and fruits at home.
“We were very happy with the parents’ comments,” Haugens said.
After harvest this year, she initiated a contest called Sprouts Cropped, a take-off on the Food Network’s show titled Chopped.
Two teams where chosen and given the task of creating a dish utilizing what they’d harvested.
“They were allowed to buy some things from the Hy-Vee stores, but not vegetables,” Haugen said. “They could buy tortillas for wraps or other ingredients, for example.”
Judges were store director Tom Keppler, a local morning talk show host, and a Hormel Institute research scientist.
The winning dish was called a Garden Wheel. It was a wrap with a mixture of turkey and cheese and a mixture of vegetables from the Sprouts garden that had been marinated in raspberry vinegar.
Hy-Vee’s history of giving its stores autonomy has always encouraged creativity at store level, Ruth Comer pointed out.
“It’s the cornerstone of our company, a key to our success.”
|Suggested Categories||More from Supermarketnews|