SIOUX CITY | Spalding Park Elementary School kindergarten teacher Brianna Murad was on the fence regarding cucumbers as a snack while her student Ella McDougall rated it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
"I don't mind cucumbers on a salad," Murad said, scrunching up her nose, "but I'm not a fan of eating it alone."
Kindergartner Kayden Ingram was even more emphatically anti-cucumber.
"Nah, that wasn't good," Kayden said, with his thumb pointing straight down. "Not good at all."
Cindy Zortman isn't offended when kids pass on her snacks. As an educator with Woodbury County's Iowa State University Extension and Outreach office, it is her goal to help students become aware of healthier, after-school snack options.
"Last week, the kids gave a thumbs up to the mango," she explained. "This week, the reaction was a bit more mixed."
Offered in the Sioux City Community School District for the past 14 years, the Pick a Better Snack program is designed to teach kindergarten through second grade students to choose fruit and veggie snack foods and become more physically active.
An Iowa Nutrition Network School Grant Program funded by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services, this initiative served more than 3,000 Sioux City students in 140 classes last year.
In addition to Spalding Park, the program is offered at Bryant, Hunt, Irving, Leeds, Liberty, Loess Hills, Morningside, Riverside and Unity elementary schools.
According to Zortman, staff, students and family members are also engaged in planting, harvesting and maintaining gardens as well as sampling produce.
"Children are naturally curious about foods," she said. "They won't know if they like something until they get the opportunity to try it."
That was true for Carlos Rodriguez Espinoza, who initially grimaced when eating the cucumber. Ultimately, the kindergartner gave the vine veggie a positive response.
"It was good," he said. "(The cucumber was) juicier than I expected."
However, the biggest advocate of Zortman's weekly visits was neither a teacher nor a student. Instead, that honor went to Nugget, a chubby guinea pig who considers Murad's classroom home.
"Nugget loves it whenever Mrs. Zortman comes to visit," Murad said. "When Nugget hears the sound of cutting and the unwrapping of paper, his eyes light up."
After all, Nugget gets to nibble on the samples students pass on.
Still, Zortman is convinced, given the opportunity, kids will choose healthier snacks.
"If you engage the students to think about the food that they eat, it will become important to them," she reasoned. "The lessons they learn today will stick with them for the rest of their lives."