Fruits and veggies make the grade at McClellan Elementary in the West Jefferson Hills district

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

They filled their plates with bright orange, crisp carrots and crunchy red apple slices.

Within minutes, the fifth-graders at McClellan Elementary already had cleared their plates.

“Are you going back for more?” one student whispered to another.

“Yup. I like fruits and vegetables,” the other answered.

The Giant Eagle Kids of Steel program, with more than 40 participating schools, attempts to get children excited about healthy living through exercise and nutrition.

Started four years ago, the program provides children in kindergarten through sixth grade with the opportunity to run their own 26.2-mile marathon over 18 weeks, culminating with the one-mile Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon, planned this year for May 4.

McClellan was the first school to participate in the program, organizers said.

This year, an essay contest, “Why fruits and veggies are cool for my school” was added to the program to encourage healthy eating.

“We want to encourage the kids to accept a healthy lifestyle,” said public relations coordinator Kelsey Jackson.

Three McClellan students — third-grader Joey Wodarek, fourth-grader Natalie Eperthener and fifth-grader Tyler Turk — were among the 12 students from six Pittsburgh-area schools to win the essay contest. They each received a free fruit and vegetable tasting for their class, sponsored by Giant Eagle.

A variety of healthy snacks, from peppers to mandarin oranges, were displayed in decorative bowls to entice the students.

“It's really important — like when you go to a restaurant, if you notice — how you present things,” physical education teacher Marie Bartoletti told the students.

Information about the fruits and vegetables also was distributed to the students. A database was made available to the students with more than 200 ways to try eating their fruits and vegetables.

“We want them to try something new,” said Kids of Steel coordinator Michele Nichols.

On the database, students can learn more about everything from vegetables purslane to jicama.

“We want them to enjoy eating fruits and vegetables,” Nichols said. “It's not that it's something that I'm being punished so I have to try it.”

Dip — made of non-fat Greek yogurt and salsa — was provided as a healthy alternative for students looking to improve the taste of their veggies.

“For some of the students, it's some of the healthiest things that they'll eat all week,” Nichols said.

Students at McClellan will participate once again this year in the Kids of Steel marathon. So far, 135 students have signed up for the program, where they are given time to run one mile a week during physical education class, Bartoletti said.

Though, the teacher hopes to beat last year's participation of 173 students, she said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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