WINTER HAVEN —  Quinoa, kale and green smoothies — oh my!

At least that’s the reaction the kids at the Winter Haven Public Education Partnership Community Center in Florence Villa had when Phoebe O’Neill introduced them to a variety of healthy, after-school snacks.

You can try the foods students have been snacking on at a fundraiser for the program April 6 at Outback Oasis. Tickets are $25 and include food, live music and a silent auction.

O’Neill, an All Saints Academy senior who plans to start college at New York University, wants to leave behind enough funds for the center to continue the Healthy Food Program she started this year. She's also hoping to raise enough money to fund healthy snacks at centers in Inwood and Wahneta, too.

She started volunteering and tutoring at the center two years ago, when she noticed the snacks being provided were packed full of sugar, she said.

"The snacks weren't healthy or balanced... and (students) weren't getting the nutrients they needed to succeed and flourish," O'Neill said.

The center serves up to 50 kids who are bused from area Title I schools each day Monday through Thursday. O'Neill worried that some of the students didn't have access to healthy foods outside of the center, either.

"It's not so much that the kids don't have a enough to eat... they're not starving, they're nutrient starved," O'Neill said. "The foods they eat are prepackaged, chips, McDonald's ... they're not getting the nutrients they need to help their brains develop and be the successful students they can be.

"I don't have a particular passion about healthy eating," she added, "but I thought it was a problem that needed to be fixed."

So the center raised about $10,000 to start the program, which not only provides healthy snacks, but also nutritional education to the students.

Audrey Nettlow, director of the Winter Haven PEP Center, called the program a "sneaky learning tool."

"They're learning the names of all the different type of nuts, trying the different nuts, finding out why the fat in the nuts is good for them and they're interested in it," Nettlow said. "They have a garden and they take ownership in creating some of the foods, they're increasing their vocabularies and learning why they need to eat healthy snacks instead of Takis (a corn chip snack)."

Beverly Butler, who runs the center's garden, agreed that the garden and healthy foods have encouraged the students to enjoy salads more than potato chips.

"Some of the kids there, a lot of their diets are high in fat, high in carbs and high in sugar, and they don't think food tastes good if it doesn't have dressing on it," Butler said. "But we've taught them that different things they grow can add a nice flavor to their food like oregano and tomato."

What the kids like: salads with greens from the garden they grow.

"You wouldn't think little kids would eat a really green salad and ask for more because they really love it," O'Neill said. "I had never eaten kale when I was in first grade, but these kids are involved in the process. They planted the seeds that grew into the kale, so they were really excited about it."

What the kids don't like: quinoa. 

"They hated, hated quinoa," O'Neill said. "I was thinking a lot of the kids eat a lot of rice, so they were going to like it, but we will not be doing quinoa again."

O'Neill's putting together a recipe book to leave for high school students who will help run the program once O'Neill leaves for college. It will include recipes like her six-vegetable guacamole. 

"Whenever I make something, I try to put as many vegetables in a recipe that I can," O'Neill said. 

She said the program has brought positive change to the center.

She hopes it can expand to other areas of Polk County.

"The kids have become more open to trying new fruits, vegetables and different foods," she said. "It's been a slow process, but it has definitely been rewarding."

— Madison Fantozzi can be reached at madison.fantozzi@theledger.com or 863-802-7547. Follow her on Twitter @madisonfantozzi.