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Little Kids Make Big Changes through WSU Extension Food $ense Program

Posted by | November 15, 2011

Devin Drennen (left with glasses) and Vincent Fefe measure plants growing in a garden at Edison Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash. The school participates in WSU Extension's Food $ense, a nutrition education program for children and families with limited incomes.
Devin Drennen (left with glasses) and Vincent Fefe measure plants growing in a garden at Edison Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash. The school participates in WSU Extension’s Food $ense, a nutrition education program for children and families with limited incomes.

When Devin Drennen’s mother, Susan, offered her son ice cream for dessert, he asked for carrots instead. Why? The fifth-grader at Edison Elementary School in Tacoma learned through a nutrition class about the importance of eating fiber foods to maintain the health of the body’s digestive system. Students made carrot juice with a juicer and handled the fiber to see how it looked and felt. The hands-on lesson stuck.

“You know how ice cream is kind of healthy and kind of not? It has calcium, but it also has sugar,” Drennen said. “I asked for carrots because they are healthier. Fiber clears out the intestines.”

The nutrition class is offered through Edison Elementary’s Square Foot Nutrition Program, part of Washington State University Extension’s Food $ense, nutrition education for children and families with limited incomes. Food $ense is funded by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed), WSU and more than 411 local and state community partners, including schools.

Food $ense reaches Washington families through its Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in five counties and SNAP-Ed in 27 counties. Local county projects provide fun, interactive classes to help people develop skills to stretch their food dollars and eat healthfully, exercise more, increase their knowledge of food safety, promote family meals and support cultural traditions. Other education venues include family nights, Kids Are Cooking Nights, cooking courses, recipes, gardening projects, newsletters and parent-teacher conferences.

Results from the program’s 2010 evaluation report show that children who go through Food $ense nutrition education are getting and incorporating the message. For example:

  • Out of 9,573 participating youth who were evaluated, 6,452, or 67 percent, participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
  • Of 8,069 Food $ense youth evaluated, 6,017, or 75 percent, eat breakfast that includes three food groups.
  • Of 1,047 Food $ense youth evaluated, 848, or 81 percent, wash their hands before preparing food.

Food $ense youth are not only applying their newfound knowledge to make better choices for themselves but also inspiring their families to change too, according to Food $ense State Coordinator Kathleen Manenica of Puyallup, Wash. Parents of participating children indicate that they’ve changed some ways they prepare food so it’s lower in fat, sugar and salt; they buy healthier snacks for their kids to eat; they increased their physical activity during the week; they eat more fruits and vegetables; and they eat more meals together as a family.

Edison Elementary School students Gem Conroy and Valeria Santana track their lunch choices for a week as part of the school’s efforts to focus on healthy nutrition.
Edison Elementary School students Gem Conroy and Valeria Santana track their lunch choices for a week as part of the school’s efforts to focus on healthy nutrition.

“Parents and teachers have provided both written and anecdotal evidence that Food $ense youth are now strong ‘change agents’ for healthy food-related behaviors at home, at the grocery store, and in the classroom and cafeteria,” Manenica said.

WSU Pierce County Extension EFNEP State Coordinator Karen Barale agreed, citing efforts at Edison Elementary School. Edison initiated a Healthy Whole School pilot project where students participated in various nutrition-related activities centered on healthy eating. One was a salad bar challenge in fall 2010 and spring 2011 to try out and rate 20 fruits and vegetables. In another March 2010 activity, 246 Edison students tracked lunchtime eating for a week and set goals for improving their food choices, including fifth-grader Emika Fukasawa.

“Since then, I started wondering how I could change my eating,” Fukasawa said. “I thought about how I could eat salads and sandwiches more often instead of just the hot lunch. I get two cups of different fruits and one cup of vegetables at lunch now. Today, I peeled off the fat on my chicken. The fat is slimy.”

WSU Pierce County Extension Whole School Coordinator Danielle Harrington described how Edison students are helping the school community change in healthy ways. Third- through fifth-grade students took a Food $ense advertising lesson to a new level when they created a series of healthy food advertisements for fruits and vegetables served in the lunchroom to reach younger students, staff, parents and themselves. A group of fifth-graders then strategized the best places to hang posters around the school to reach targeted audiences.

Edison students Michelle Perez-Garcia and Thomas Swiatek study fiber cards to learn about fiber content in different foods.
Edison students Michelle Perez-Garcia and Thomas Swiatek study fiber cards to learn about fiber content in different foods.

In addition, Edison Associated Student Body members chose to provide a healthier snack at their Family Dance Night. Instead of serving ice cream sundaes, they purchased frozen yogurt and fresh fruit. They also offered water instead of soda. Several Edison classes hosted similar healthy celebrations for holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween.

Lunchroom staff and other teachers also noticed that Edison students made healthier cafeteria choices last school year, particularly in consuming plain milk. In fact, milk orders were adjusted several times as students began choosing plain milk over chocolate milk.

“Over the course of the 2010-11 school year at Edison Elementary, several staff and parents shared stories about their students/children working to create a healthier eating culture,” Harrington said. “Multiple staff were impressed when groups of third- through fifth-grade students asked to look at the food labels of the snacks and meals that either they were eating or were offering to students. One teacher had the sugars in her cranberry-orange popcorn evaluated.”

Healthy eating through Food $ense has brought other benefits, as Devin Drennen learned. He received an award in fourth grade for improving his one-mile running time from 18 minutes at the beginning of the year to 10 minutes 20 seconds at the end.

“Running helps my brain work better in classes like math,” Drennen said. “I am now encouraging two other friends to eat healthier and do their best on their first mile run.”

By Nella Letizia