Food & DrinkThe Locavore

Hugh Acheson Gives Kids a Head Start on Good Nutrition

Among a sea of 3-year-olds sprawled across a blue tarp, Hugh Acheson stands in a simple, tan chef’s apron. He leans down to accept the ear of Silver Queen white corn a small hand is offering him. He peels away a piece of the husk and hands it back to the child.

“What are we doing?” he calls. “Shucking!”

Before noon, all six 3-year-old classrooms at Athens Head Start will rotate through this corn shucking activity, one of several events that make up Aw Shucks Day. And Acheson—a celebrity chef whose restaurants include Athens’ Five & Ten—is the guest of honor.

In a flurry of tugging and tearing, one of the students attacks the corn like a wrapped gift. Acheson would say the fresh corn is a gift. Encouraging kids to interact with fresh, healthy food—touch it, smell it, taste it—has been a focus of Acheson’s food-education efforts and a foundation of his home-ec curriculum brainchild, Seed Life Skills. Introducing young children to healthy foods is also a primary goal of Head Start’s curriculum.

“Head Start has a huge emphasis on the health of children,” says Athens Head Start coordinator Angie Moon de Avila. “When we think about health, it’s all-inclusive.” That includes nutrition. The best way to get kids to eat their veggies is to expose them to vegetables as often as possible. Athens Head Start designed a playground that features a garden, and 3- and 4-year-olds work in the garden throughout the school year.

Head Start partnered with the Department of Early Childhood Education at UGA to develop the curriculum it uses with its kids, and student teachers teach it. Karen Higginbotham, director of the Office of Early Learning, says it’s amazing to watch a child’s interest in vegetables evolve as the year goes on. “At first they’re like, ‘ew, lettuce,’ then they grow it and can’t get enough lettuce,” she says.

Acheson smiles when he hears this. “That’s the connection,” he says. Later in the day, Acheson will perform a cooking demonstration using some of the freshly shucked corn. His plan is to make a simple, tasty salad to show how easy it can be to prepare healthy food. “It’s awareness,” says Acheson. “It’s planting the seed of an idea in kids that it’s not that hard to eat well.”

This is Acheson’s first demonstration to such a young audience. He normally works with middle-school-age kids who can immediately retain what they learn. But the National Head Start Association is encouraging programs across the nation to connect with local celebrities who can act as champions for the children.

Given his past projects and work within the Clarke County School District, Moon de Avila says Acheson is a “natural partner.” Acheson and other local celebrities have the influence to spotlight what community programs can accomplish.

After the shucking is done, a group of parents who are part of Head Start’s home-base program arrive to take part in the next activity: planting basil seedlings. The seedlings, and the fresh basil Acheson will use for his salad, were grown and supplied by Good Roots. A part of the Multiple Choices Center for Independent Living, this training program teaches disabled adults how to foster and grow seedlings.

No doubt the move toward buying and consuming local foods has benefited Athens farmers, chefs and the grazing public. But maybe more importantly, a town that has made room for so many diverse producers of goods as a result has created a network of resources the Head Start program can tap into.

“Head Start is designed to support families who need the services the most,” says Moon de Avila. Athens has more than 7,000 children under age 5, and 34 percent of those kids live below the poverty line. Only 306 student spots are available at the Athens facility. “It’s limited seating,” she says.

Good nutrition is critical to a child’s development and health, and healthy children are more likely to perform well in school. The more the Athens community can do to support nutrition and food-education initiatives, the better our students will do. And the earlier the better. “They need to have a healthy start,” says Moon de Avila. “It’s so, so important.”