Program lets students be heroes, teaches healthy eating habits

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 11:44 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 11:47 p.m. CDT
(Lathan Goumas –
Dressed as a superhero banana and superhero strawberry William Niedfeldt, 7, and Aidan Stuckemeyer, 7, pop bubbles to portray “fighting germs” Wednesday during a healthy eating program at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Students participated in a program designed by Nina Vanderwiel to convince children to eat their fruits and vegetables.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Like many parents, Nina Vanderwiel had some trouble trying to convince her children to eat fruits and vegetables.

Instead of using the age-old technique of threatening to withhold dessert, she decided to call on the help of some superheroes. Now the likes of Batman, Mr. Incredible and Wonder Woman are helping children throughout the area develop healthy eating habits.

“I really tried to look at it through the eyes of a child instead of just saying eat your fruits and veggies,” Vanderwiel said. “When we’re sick we have germs in our bodies, and when we eat fruits and veggies they turn into superheroes that keep us healthy.”

With the help of Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital and Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen, Vanderwiel is piloting her Fruits & Veggies to the Rescue! program at Crystal Lake School District 47. She already has introduced her program at schools and park districts in Woodstock, Barrington, Schaumburg, Randall Oaks and Mundelein.

The program allows young students to play out a superhero story where they dress in capes and masks as characters such as superhero banana and superhero carrot to save a sick child.

The superheroes fight off the germs, which are represented by a flurry of bubbles coming from a bubble machine.

Students then participate in a hands-on edible creative activity with fruits and vegetables before getting to snack on some of the fresh food. They are sent home with a packet for parents and an Adventure Token redeemable for one free children’s meal at Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen, which donates some of the fruits and vegetables for the program.

Lori Hoffman, a health teacher at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake, said the pilot program has generated the most excitement in the students as any health initiative she has seen in her 26 years of teaching.

“The kids that had this session went back to their teacher and said it was the best health class ever so it was really exciting,” Hoffman said. “Taking the perspective that these fruits and vegetables are the superheroes that are going to help make you strong is right at the level these kids understand.”

Should the pilot be successful, the plan is to make Fruits & Veggies to the Rescue! a permanent supplement to the CATCH curriculum Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital is hoping to install in area school districts, said Linnea Mason, community outreach director for the hospital.

CATCH, or Coordinated Approach To Child Health, is a nationwide health initiative to promote physical activity and healthy eating among children.

Mason said it is encouraging to see a grassroots, parent-initiated program aimed at improving the health of children as communities around the country fight against obesity.

“Without (Vanderwiel’s) passion we would not have this program,” Mason said. “By the time you’re in fifth grade you have developed eating habits that could stick with you for the rest of your life. That’s why it is so important to teach children about the importance of fruits and vegetables when they are young.”

For parents interested in finding out more about the program, Vanderwiel has a website at

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