Animal Antics: Zoo, food service team up for healthy eating presentation

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Heather Berkey, an educational specialist with the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, shares Rianna the porcupine with students at Laurel Elementary School.

Renee Gendreau/NEWS

Magic needs to eat her broccoli.


So too, do students at Laurel Elementary.

The youngsters got a lesson in healthy eating Thursday from Magic the macaw and her friends from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium arranged by the district’s food service provider, The Nutrition Group, in partnership with the animal park and Reinhart Foods.

“I’m told the kids always take more veggies on zoo days. It’s only one day, but we hope it helps them remember why it’s important to eat healthy,” said Michelle Marker, director of programs for The Nutrition Group.


After a zoo-themed lunch featuring animal-shaped chicken nuggets, broccoli trees, safari salad and arctic blizzard milk crafted by Laurel food service director Carrie Bonyak and her staff, students were treated to a visit from zoo educational specialists Heather Berkey and Zack Winiasz.

Also helping to illustrate the lesson were Magic the macaw, African ball pythons Monty and Kindu and a South American prehensile-tailed porcupine named Rianna.

“No H, she was here before the singer,” joked Berkey.



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Heather Berkey, an educational specialist with the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and Magic the macaw visit with students at Laurel Elementary School.

Throughout the “Rainforest Rhythms” presentation, the students learned about the eating habits of creatures in the wild and at the zoo.

When about half the students admitted to not eating their broccoli trees, Berkey told them that Magic, too, is not a fan of the vitamin-rich veggie. However, the brightly colored bird does enjoy grapes, bananas and beans.

“She needs to learn to eat healthier, just like us,” Berkey said.

Displaying Rianna for the youngsters, Berkey told about the porcupine’s love for bananas, but added, as the critter rejected a dried banana chip treat, she prefers the fresh variety.

As for the strictly carnivorous pythons, Berkey and Winiasz told the assembly they can eat animals five times the size of their heads.

“That’s like picking out the biggest watermelon you can find and putting it in your mouth,” Berkey said.

In addition to the presentation and theme lunch, students were treated to animal stickers and mini stuffed animal prizes for those holding lucky trays.

“As many times as we do this, I always learn something, too,” Marker said. “It’s a good reminder for all of us about making healthy food choices.”

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