All photos from Herb Holden used with permission.

Children like Chef Herb for his engaging food demonstrations and visually appealing creations. Adults like Chef Herb because his lessons encourage children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, all with the hope of reducing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other associated ailments.

Chef Herb, whose real name is Herb Holden, works in the SNAP-Ed program, part of the The Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health at the University of the District of Columbia.

Herb engages children, and sometimes parents, with hands-on demonstrations and tactile presentations. A favorite demonstration is an eggplant penguin creation, but students also get to see the food packaging and labels in an effort to teach students what they are consuming and to form habits the students will take with them long after the demonstration.

Herb Holden, a self-described “good old country boy,” grew up on a farm in Delaware cooking meals using fresh fruits and vegetables and has been a chef and educator with the center for two years. He regularly visits 12 DC elementary schools and works to help children understand how to make healthy food choices. He knows that students who eat more fruits and vegetables are healthier, have more energy, and work more efficiently.

I was treated to a showing of Chef Herb’s talents on a recent visit at Langdon Education Campus in Ward 5, where Chef Herb regularly works with preschool students and their parents. On the menu:

  • African Punch with Guava, Papaya, and Orange Juice and Lemonade
  • Rice noodle w/ veggie stir-fry
  • Red Thai curry with veggies over rice
  • Watermelon and dragon fruit

Chef Herb started by introducing the students to the food on the menu, making sure that everyone had a chance to see what a dragon fruit or pitaya looks like. His hope is that students will remember the dragon fruit or the eggplant when shopping and include it in their meals. The students were clearly drawn in by his hands-on teaching style.

You can see Chef Herb in action, teaching about fresh fruits and vegetables from A to Z, at the UDC Farmer’s Market from May to October in front of UDC’s campus at Van Ness Metro.

In addition to making fantastic food, Chef Herb teaches students and parents how to turn unhealthy meals healthier, how to stretch a budget by using fresh produce, and how to shop in season to reduce costs. In between visits, head-start teachers are trained in 48 “color me healthy” lesson plans to teach to their students. My plate and the importance of exercise are also included in the lessons. He also teaches some of the less flashy skills including hand washing, teeth brushing, and food safety.

Obesity rates, particular among African-Americans, are on the rise and the earlier students are taught healthier eating habits the less likely they are to become obese. Along with reducing rates of obesity and related diseases, this program will save money on later medical treatment. It is an investment in DC’s future that is worth every penny.

Benefits from this program is not limited to preschool families. Chef Herb and others from the program visit local health fairs and are involved with Chartered Health Plan. They even have requests from churches to give food preparation demonstrations and information on healthy eating.

Another program at the center for adults is the DC Professional Food Managers/Food Handler Certification Program, which covers a variety of topics including food safety, food storage, and personal hygiene. After successfully completing the course, participants are eligible to sit for the national exam, thus providing an opportunity for job training. The program currently has a 100% passage rate.

Other programs under the Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health provide dietitians and nutritionists and others engage with teens and seniors all aimed at improving the health of community, educating DC residents, with a focus on SNAP recipients, on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and ways to prevent obesity, heart disease, and related ailments.

Funding for this program is provided from the USDA through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Jessica Christy has two children learning Chinese at Washington Yu Ying, where she is also the president of the Parent Association. For work, she does industrial hygiene consulting and stays at home with her two-year-old. In her free time (ha!), Jessica enjoys needlepoint and DIY home improvement. All opinions stated here are her own.