Success Story

Karra Hartog

Life comes full circle

Growing up in a family with a mother who was an avid gardener, Karra Hartog’s childhood brimmed with opportunities to pick, taste and enjoy a vast selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although she remembers the wonderful abundance of fresh food she enjoyed as a child, she was unaware of how important this early introduction to healthful eating would be to her future health and career. Today, at age 48 with a family of her own, a heart attack six years ago that caused her to take a closer look at her eating and exercise, and a career that gives her an opportunity to share her knowledge and love of nutrition and food choices, Hartog says her life has come full circle.

“I now understand how fortunate I was to be introduced to a variety of healthful foods at such a young age,” says Hartog. “As an adult, I am not hesitant to eat rutabagas and Swiss chard because it was what we ate at home. Processed food can’t provide the variety, color and texture that fresh produce offers.”

Armed with a healthful childhood diet, no known history of heart disease in her family, normal blood pressure levels and healthy cholesterol numbers, a heart attack was the last thing Hartog expected to experience. “After church one Sunday I felt my heart jump and I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t know it at the time but I was experiencing all of the classic symptoms of a heart attack,” explained Hartog. “It felt as if my heart was being squeezed and my right arm and jaw went numb. I thought I was having a panic attack but testing revealed that I had arteriosclerosis with an 87 percent blocked artery that resulted in a heart attack.”

Hartog says that her heart attack prompted her to take another look at her daily eating habits and went on to explain that the food information we receive on a daily basis can definitely be perplexing. “There was a time not too long ago when the message was that everyone eats fast and convenient food and it’s just what you do. I was one of those people who got confused about what was best to eat,” admitted Hartog. “Now, as a school food manager for the past 12 years and someone who wants to eat healthfully, I’ve seen several changes in the last seven years that things are moving in a different direction.”

In an effort to keep her heart healthy and through her work as the Food Service Manager at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville, preparing healthier food for her students and family has become her passion. “Eating healthfully should be fun and not something you do because it’s forced on you,” expressed Hartog. “Through my heart attack experience and the ongoing education I receive through my work in the school’s food service program, I’ve learned so much about nutrition, menu planning and portion control. The school district I work for is very supportive and gives me a place to introduce new foods to the students and help them make healthier choices. I can’t imagine doing anything else!”

Hartog explains her perspective on healthful eating with the word “choices” and an analogy of a breakfast buffet at a hotel. She says that when people hear the word “diet,” they automatically think that means their food choices are now restricted. She believes that by incorporating new fruit and vegetables into the mix, a person looking to eat healthier can actually have more choices than ever before. “If you visit a hotel and it offers just two choices of fruit at the breakfast buffet – let’s say an apple and a banana – it can make you feel limited,” says Hartog. “If that same buffet offered three to five choices and also included plums, grapes and pears, your senses would be heightened to the many colors, tastes, textures and smells and the fruit section and those foods would then become more important and appealing to you.”

In addition, Hartog says that identifying which sensory experience we are craving in foods can also help in making better food choices. She says that if you discover that you desire to eat something crunchy, then trying something like sugar snap peas instead of chips is a good option and that a craving for something creamy might be satisfied with a banana instead of a bowl of ice cream. “I’m like everyone else and still crave a cookie or other snack and that’s fine if it’s a once-in-a-while treat,” says Hartog. “If we start to think about what we are really craving and make several healthful food choices available, we are less likely to feel deprived and hopefully will make the better choice.”

Hartog is excited to share what she has learned with others. Last year she partnered with the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation to introduce the Food Explorers program to the kindergarten through first-grade students at her school. The program uses trained volunteers to lead students on an exciting exploration of new foods. Through simple cooking and tasting in the classroom and take-home activities, children gain the knowledge, skills, social support and environment they need to develop lifelong healthful habits at both school and at home. Hartog volunteered her time to visit classrooms and bring new fruits and vegetables to the students who eagerly tried them, welcomed her to their classroom and gave her the title of “lunchroom teacher.” The school lunchroom motto she proudly lives by is, “School nutrition is a precondition to learning.” Later this year, she also plans to share what she has learned with the pre-school children at her church who maintain a summer garden.

Beyond working to keep her school and home kitchen filled with an assortment of healthful food choices, Hartog also strives to get 40 minutes a day of cardiovascular exercise and one to two days of weight training. When the weather cooperates, she enjoys taking her dog, Gracie, on walks, flower gardening and hopes to become a regular on the golf course.

“I do feel my life has come full circle,” says Hartog. “My familiarity with a variety of fresh foods at an early age is the same experience I want to pass on to young children. I look forward to watching the kindergarteners I’ve worked with mature in their food choices and to see if they maintain their spirit of adventure to try new foods. My hope always is to educate and build strong nutritional foundations for children. It’s so important!”