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Fort Carson child-care center to fight obesity with garden

If you’re hoping for a bumper crop next year, launching a garden after harvest season’s sunset may be jumping the gun.

But on an Army post where training and preparation are key, the timing is just right, said Kelly Hurtado, director of the Fort Carson Head Start Center.

Nearly 60 volunteers, including soldiers from the 52nd Engineer Battalion, gathered this fall at the center’s playground, where they constructed a garden composed of two long, raised beds, several ground-level beds and a learning area.

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“We had the manpower to do it, so we went ahead,” Hurtado said.

The tab for the learning garden, which totaled more than $15,000, was picked up by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and a grant from the Anschutz Family Foundation, said Travis Robinson, the managing director of Boulder-based nonprofit The Kitchen Community.

The nonprofit, founded last year with the aim of whittling away at childhood obesity rates, has helped launch more than 20 learning gardens, most at elementary, middle and high schools.

The Fort Carson garden was the nonprofit’s first at an early childhood education center and the first launched on a military instillation.

“It was a little bit outside the box for us,” Robinson said. “But it felt right, and the community wanted it. Volunteers did a tremendous amount of work on the build day.”

For now, the garden appears bleak. Children have topped its beds with pale golden hay to protect them from harsh winter weather.

By summer and fall, the beds should be brimming with multicolored bell peppers, mouth-watering zucchini and robust herbs.

Center employees hope the produce looks just as appealing to kids on their plates as it does in the garden. They plan to incorporate it into snacks and send some home with children in hopes their parents make a habit of incorporating fresh food into mealtimes.

“In this country, community, and in our program, we have an epidemic of really young children who are suffering from obesity,” said Noreen Landis-Tyson, president of the Community Partnership for Child Development, which operates the Fort Carson center and other Head Start and Colorado Preschool programs throughout El Paso County.

“We want to make absolutely sure that parents are familiar with how to introduce new foods to our kiddos. What better way than to let the kids grow their own food and eat it?”

Of the nearly 500 military children served by Landis-Tyson’s organization, 26 percent are obese; 4 percent more than the organization’s total population and nearly 12 percent more than the state average, according to 2007 data released from The Colorado Health Foundation.

Landis-Tyson considers the program’s rate of obese military children to be “a resource issue, an educational issue, a stress issue.”

Military families have more programs and resources available to them than their civilian counterparts. But high stress levels due to repeat deployments often dull any edge military families have in combating the problem, Landis-Tyson said.

“Young moms are left behind with absolutely no family support, no confidence in themselves as parents, without knowing how or where to go to get help or even feeling that they should get help,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t know how they do it. I don’t think that they’re making bad choices. In many cases, they’re making the only choices available to them.”

While Landis-Tyson expects the new garden to improve children’s health, she has other aspirations for it as well.

She hopes the garden excites children about science, promotes curiosity, provides them with an opportunity to make unique memories and inspires future career choices.

“If they’re going from one duty station to another and are always living on post, these kiddos may never have an opportunity to tend a garden,” Landis-Tyson said. “Maybe some of these kids will eventually become landscapers or horticulturists or nutritionists. You just never know what you’re going to spark in a little person.”

 

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