(March 5) HOUSTON — Produce industry members, grower-shippers and trade group representatives alike are always searching for the elusive formula to boost consumption and reach children, whose eating habits as adults are greatly influenced by what they’re eating now.

To Lance Fegen, chef at downtown Houston’s Zula restaurant, getting children to think about nutrition and a healthy variety of foods isn’t magic.

“We’re not building rocket ships here,” Fegen said. “We’re just trying to give kids that don’t have a lot something to think about. It’s important to teach nutrition and about cooking.”

Fegen and about 10 other Houston chefs have joined Club Chef, a component of Houston’s year-old Kids Cafe program. As an America’s Second Harvest program administered through the Houston Food Bank, Kids Cafe’s main goal is to feed hungry children.

Unlike many of the 600-plus other Kids Cafe programs at more than 80 food banks across the country, the Houston one is so much more, said Amber Wilson, the food bank’s coordinator for the program.

“We’ve got several goals, and one is increasing awareness of healthy food choices,” Wilson said. “We’re pushing the fruits and vegetables because that’s deficient in so many diets. We don’t fry anything. A lot of kids are trying new things at the cafe. We’re trying to make healthy food that doesn’t look like a fast food meal. That’s an uphill battle, but they’re getting more brave and adventurous in what they eat.”

After school, children ages 7-17 in the program meet at a Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston location, where Kids Cafe serves a substantial snack three times a week and a meal twice a week. During the summer, breakfast is served there, as well as lunch (through the federal summer lunch feeding program).

This summer, up to 200 meals were served each weekday. About 80 kids are enrolled in the after-school program.

CHANGING HABITS

At least twice a semester and once during the summer, the program expands to include Club Nutrition and Club Chef, in which children are taught about nutrition and how to cook healthful meals. That’s where Fegen and his peers come in.

Fegen, named the Up and Coming Chef at the 2001 Houston Culinary Awards, is right at home in a kitchen. The 32-year-old chef, a partner in Big Night Ventures, a Houston company that owns several Houston restaurants, said he specializes in American regional food at Zula.

That includes everything from foie gras, barbecue shrimp and wasabi caviar — items that his students at Club Chef most likely haven’t tried before. He said his focus at the Boys and Girls Club is on simple, basic ingredients and techniques that the 8- to 12-year-olds in the program can use at home.

“We look at what is practical. We keep them very easy,” he said. “Grapes, tomatoes, oranges, pineapples — things that are easy and inexpensive.”

Fegen also enjoys challenging the children’s tastes with blood oranges, kiwifruit, red bananas and exotic berries.

“That blows them away. Some will try it, and some are hesitant, but even if they don’t like it, I consider it a victory if they try something new,” he said.

Club Nutrition volunteers have incorporated the 5 a Day message in their presentations, handing out recipe cards that will guide children in getting five servings of fruits and vegetables.

Whether cooked or raw — or sometimes blended into fruit smoothies — the Kids Cafe serves at least two fruits or vegetables each meal. Wilson is a registered dietician, and Kids Cafe chef Charlene Edmondson works with her to ensure that the program meets federal dietary guidelines.

“We’re very focused on increasing the fruit and vegetable intake of the kids,” Wilson said.

The Houston Food Bank will expand the education programs to another Boys and Girls Club this spring, and plans call for a total of four locations by the end of the year.

Fegen said he encourages chefs he works with to consider volunteering for the program, but only if they are dedicated to devoting their time to it. Fegen said his first contact with the children convinced him he made the right decision.

“I remember pulling up for the first time,” he said. “I was mobbed by about 20 kids. I felt like a rock star in my apron and white jacket.”