Bestie Berry And Her BFF’s
By Shanna Perkins / Photos By Best Life Iberia
In 2011, Blue Cross And Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation issued a challenge to nonprofits across the state in an attempt to build healthier communities. The 12 most innovative proposals received a $1 million grant to implement their programs. Iberia Development Foundation was one of the 12 recipients. On Aug. 31 of this year, that grant ended. And it ended with a berry inventive and exciting program that is planting the seeds of knowledge to help modify the relationship children have with their food.
Preparing The Soil
As the fiscal oversight agency with promotion and implementation of the of the project, Iberia Development foundation administered the grant through their quality of life and community development initiative – BestLife Iberia.
BestLife Iberia was dedicated to finding a way to get children interested in farmers markets to help them better understand where their food comes from. After experiencing some difficulty finding a means to engage younger generations, they teamed up with the LSU AgCenter.
“There were all kinds of ideas being bandied around between ourselves, the LSU AgCenter and local educators,” recalls BestLife Iberia Project Manger Marti Harrell. “We all agreed that flashcards with nutritional information on them that was somehow entertaining would be the best way to intrigue children. So we said, ‘flashcards with cartoon characters on them. Of course!”
They created an alliterative ABCs style set of flashcards that were specific to South Louisiana’s agriculture. Harrell says that she took extra care when naming the characters, finding unusual names and ones the kids could relate to. There’s the Louisiana super food, Yancy Yam. The South’s favorite treat, Freddy Fig. There’s a hidden homage to the Iberia Community Garden’s Jenny LaLonde with Jenny Jelly. And then, the character that is the most indicative of Acadiana’s culture and agriculture – Maurice Mirliton.
“I think that the most interesting thing about this program is how it’s tied to New Iberia and Louisiana based agricultural commodities and how unique they are to this area,” says Area Nutrition Agent of Vermilion and Iberia Parish Extension Service Mandy Armentor of the LSU AgCenter. “It’s a really fun and different way to teach kids and adults about nutrition.”
In addition to the flashcards, there are two supplementary cards that are intended for parents and teachers. They include nutritional information found in the foods depicted in the flashcards. They also serve as a creative way to help adults inspire children about nutritional information.
“I had the task of compiling and writing all of the nutritional facts associated with the cards,” explains Armentor. “I wrote a nutritional hint or fact on each food item and then compiled three to five nutritional messages the parent or teachers could use. We included the importance of drinking milk and the vitamins and minerals it has that are essential to our diet.”
When it came time to bring life to the characters that were lovingly created by Harrell and her team, there was one logical choice – local artist Paul Schexnayder. The idea was to have characters that five year olds would relate to and find entertaining.
“My inspiration for the illustration was my series of Happy Cajun designs and paintings,” reveals Schexnayder. “They’re a simple image using just the basic elements to convey a message. I wanted them to be fun and whimsical. The characters each have a distinct personality, like all young children do. I think the names played into that as well.
“May favorite part of this project was the challenge to make fruits and vegetables a fun learning tool,” he continues. “As I would paint each one, the character in the image would come alive. Once I put on the happy face, it would make me smile and I would know I was finished.”
Stems And Leaves
The project was still missing an element that would bring everything together – an element strong enough to also serve as the mascot. Harrell recalls that they always intended to uses a strawberry, because of Iberia Parish’s developing strawberry industry and as a nod to the ladies of The Berry Queens of New Iberia.
“So I got to thinking, if we use a strawberry, what would we name her,” recalls Harrell. “I said, ‘Let’s name her Bestie Berry.’ It will tie it back to Best Life Iberia. And we decided it would be Bestie Berry and her BFF’s, her best friends forever.”
So Bestie Berry was born, complete with a cell phone to text all of her best friends. The cast of colorful characters was complete and ready to teach kids to “Have fun making friends with your food and the farmers who grow it.” But the project wasn’t done. They didn’t have a way to present the information to the students. In addition to the cards, the kits come with a reusable grocery bag that compacts into a pocket-size size strawberry and a equally diminutive shopping list.
“After it was decided what would be in the kit, we still needed to figure out what we were going to put it in. I decided that we needed to use a box that children were familiar with,” Harrell says casting her gaze to the box that is oddly reminiscent of a child’s meal from a certain restaurant associated with golden arches. “Maybe it could change their thinking about what our food comes in and how we get our food.”
Once Bestie Berry and her BFF’s were wrapped up and ready to go, it became obvious this wasn’t a tool that could simply be dropped off at schools. Harrell began discussing this problem with one of her friends, St. Edward School’s Principal Karen Bonin. Principal Bonin had one request. “Can Aunti M do it?”
For a full school year, 2009-2010, Harrell put on a pair of antennas, a red shirt and with a plush ladybug, Lucky, and a sunflower in tow, she visited schools as Aunti M. For one hour, she would read students “The Grouchy Ladybug” and do activities associated with the book. She got an understanding of how engaging this type of presentation can be for children. So it was decided, Aunti M would introduce Bestie and her BFF’s.
“We do the farmers presentation that goes along with Bestie Berry and her BFF’s and we’d say, ‘We talked about two beneficial bugs today. What were they? The bee and the lady bug,’” Harrell explains. “So Aunti M was a very logical hand-in-glove fit.”
Scattering the Seeds
The BestLife team determined that the pilot program for Bestie Berry and her BFF’s should put the kits in the hands of the PreK-4 and kindergarten students in the West End. The first programs were held at Sugarland Elementary School, a feeder school from the West End, Johnston-Hopkins Elementary, Park Elementary School and St. Edwards School, which is a parochial school with a considerable population from the West End.
Armentor explained the research that went into determining what age the children should be in the pilot program and the benefits it would have. “Research has shown that the earlier we teach people the importance of good nutrition, the more likely they will be to embrace it and make it their lifestyle,” she explains. “Sometimes, it takes a child to encourage a parent to buy or try new foods. Teaching children and their parents the importance of good nutrition and the fact that nutritious foods are grown almost in our backyard is key.”
The Fruits Of Labor
Harrell has received feedback from teachers who say they watch their students run to their parents car at the end of the day eager to show their parents the Bestie Berry and her BFF’s kit and tell them all about what they learned at school that day. And for Harrell, and everyone involved in this project, that’s the main goal.
“I want the kids to leave with questions,” Harrell expresses. “I want them to go home looking for Bestie Berry and her BFF’s in their refrigerators, in the grocery stores and at the farmers market. If I can move them a little closer to their food, even if it’s through a character, that’s awesome.”