MONTVILLE, NJ - The energy was palpable in the Cedar Hill Elementary School lunch room on Thursday, Jan. 25. Students were buzzing with excitement and actually hoping to “get caught.” Doing what? Eating vegetables!

“It’s incredible,” said Lisa Simek, a Cedar Hill mom and a member of the newly formed Cedar Hill Wellness Committee. “Everyone is eating veggies! It’s great! We brought extra veggies – in case someone forgot – and even the kids who have already eaten their veggies; are eating MORE veggies. We’ve had to order in an extra tray of veggies!”

Such was the launch of the GET CAUGHT EATING VEGGIES! initiative at Cedar Hill Elementary School. All of the 301 students at the Montville Township Public School participated in the veggie eating contest which ran for two days: Thursday and Friday, Jan. 25 and 26.

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The Cedar Hill Wellness Committee is comprised of volunteer parents, most of whom are professionals from various health-centric backgrounds including: doctors, fitness moguls, therapists, journalists and culinary executives. Teams of volunteers attended all lunch periods and snack times and “caught” the school’s K through 5 students eating vegetables. Additional veggies were offered throughout the lunch periods for students who may have forgotten to bring veggies.

One surprising thing, however, for the parents of the Cedar Hill Wellness Committee, was that most students – even those who had brought veggies with them from home -- made a point of eating additional veggies and were excited to try veggies they were not as familiar with.

“I eat veggies at every meal,” said fifth grade student Logan McBurney. “I like all the different kinds of vegetables. This challenge gets people to eat healthy.”

The GET CAUGHT EATING VEGGIES! event provided several opportunities throughout each of the two days to “get caught” eating veggies. Each student who participated was awarded a Veggie Ticket. Students will have until Tuesday, January 30 to decorate the tickets and return them to Cedar Hill, where they will be displayed on the Wellness Committee Bulletin Board. 

All tickets will be entered into a contest drawing, and several prizes will be awarded; including the grand prize of two FREE Jump Passes to Rockin’ Jump Trampoline Park in Wayne, NJ.

Stickers, positive recognition and words of encouragement were also awarded during the two day event.

“The GET CAUGHT EATING VEGGIES! contest is a great way to engage the children and demonstrate just how much fun healthy habits can be,” said Dr. Michael Raj, principal of Cedar Hill Elementary School. “The kids are happy and full of enthusiasm for this project. Making healthy eating fun and a priority is exactly how we can help students learn and retain this important life lesson.”

Raj noted that he, himself, was caught munching on snap peas and divulged to students that his favorite vegetables throughout his own elementary school years were carrots and broccoli. 

Carrots were also popular among most of the students who were asked about favorite vegetables. However, peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, spinach and even Brussel sprouts made the list. Additionally there was a lively debate over the status of tomatoes: Vegetable or fruit? 

“Getting ‘caught’ eating vegetables is a great way to remember to eat healthy,” said fourth grade student Megan Haley.

“I eat vegetables at almost every meal – except breakfast,” added Ruby Brodsky, also a fourth grader.

According to Simek “The Cedar Hill Wellness Committee was formed in the fall of 2017 with the intent of providing a school environment that promotes and protects children’s health, well-being and the ability to learn by supporting healthy eating habits, an active lifestyle and a positive mindset. It is parent-driven and solely relies on voluntary participation and support by the community in order to enhance the educational environment and wellbeing of students and faculty currently attending Cedar Hill Elementary School.”

Dr. Tami Stappas, a resident of Montville and the founder of the Cedar Hill Wellness Committee said, “Children need the tools to get healthy, stay healthy and feel empowered to do so. The research is clear. A healthy lifestyle has more to do with overall wellness [and decreased chance of illness] than your genetic makeup.” 

The Wellness Committee’s first initiative was a Halloween candy collection, where students donated their candy to the non-profit Operation Gratitude. Cedar Hill broke records by collecting the most candy in the area to be sent to United States Military personnel overseas.

The Committee followed that successful event by: Hosting a health and wellness evening symposium for staff and parents, encouraging teachers to implement “brain breaks” for the children in classrooms, implementing health and wellness newsletters, creating a social media support forum for parents and creating and updating a Wellness Committee bulletin board in one of the school’s most trafficked hallways.

The committee also has planned a calendar of events they hope to introduce throughout the remainder of the school year including: a “Show Love Week” in February, an entire Health and Wellness Themed Fair in late Spring and, hopefully, a school garden by next fall.

“I am a firm believer in fruits and veggies, especially the ‘5 A Day’ initiative,” said school nurse Bonnie DiCola. “I myself follow those guidelines. The most important thing is that the students are taken care of from a nutritional standpoint, as well as physically, mentally and socio-emotionally. The Wellness Committee’s programs are just a great way to reinforce all of our efforts here at the school.”