May 2013 Issue

Partnering for Healthier Kids — Hands-On Middle School Program Teaches Students About Nutrition
By Maura Keller
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 5 P. 16

Aligning with Michelle Obama’s Healthy Eating initiative, a special pilot program is being tested at Walnut Park Middle School STEM Academy in Huntington Park, California, to encourage healthful eating habits among low-income black and Latino students. It involves collaboration between the Latino Green Project, an organization that promotes career development, and Simply Fresh Fruit, one of the largest fresh-cut fruit providers in the country.

The program, called the Eat Right, Be Bright Challenge, integrates community involvement, science projects, and a healthful eating curriculum to increase students’ awareness of the growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic conditions. The kids learn about the health benefits of eating nutritious foods and the consequences of poor food choices.

Rosa Lopez, a sixth-grade teacher who helped develop the program at Walnut Park Middle School, located just south of downtown Los Angeles, says it encourages the kids to take a hands-on approach to making dietary changes that can last a lifetime.

“The Eat Right, Be Bright pilot program is an opportunity for our students to incorporate real-life learning about the benefits of healthful eating,” Lopez says. “The students look at their current eating habits and analyze what changes they can make to improve their health. Students research and compare nutritional values such as fat, sodium, and sugar content of fast foods from different restaurants. For example, some students found a very high fat content in [one of the restaurant’s hamburgers]. Then they found a better solution.

“As educators, we want to provide guidance and examples of how to balance a healthier lifestyle while maintaining a connection to the students’ Latino heritage,” Lopez continues. “By introducing these healthful eating concepts to the students, they go home and begin a dialogue with their parents on what they’ve learned and why it’s important for their family’s health. Students can have a huge impact on the behavior of their parents’ buying habits when the students voice why it’s important to them and their academic success.”

Grassroots Collaboration
Rob Harris, program director for the Latino Green Project, says his purpose for participating in the Eat Right, Be Bright Challenge is to introduce the concepts of healthful eating and incorporate them into a standards-based curriculum that provides students with an opportunity to examine the health and societal implications of environmental stewardship and healthful eating, and how healthful eating relates to their families and learning ability.

Although this is a pilot program, Harris and his team are encouraged by the early positive feedback from students, parents, and community partners about its success, and they’re committed to expanding it in other areas of Los Angeles.

Simply Fresh Fruit supports the “innovative efforts of the Latino Green Project, which helped develop the Eat Right, Be Bright Challenge,” says President Bill Sander. “In addition to helping students learn the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a healthful diet, the program provides students with valuable insight into environmental stewardship and community involvement, which is the cornerstone of any healthful community.”

Simply Fresh Fruit has donated nearly 1,000 lbs of fresh fruit to the middle school, including strawberries, pineapples, apples, grapes, oranges, kiwis, mangos, papayas, and watermelons. Fridays are called “Fresh Fruit Friday,” when the students use the fruit to create their own healthful desserts and meal options for breakfast and lunch.

Healthful Eating and Academic Performance
By working with leading community-based organizations, Simply Fresh Fruit has become part of a larger effort to support the nutritional needs of underserved students to help them perform better academically, Sander says. “Many studies reveal that poor nutrition directly affects the academic performance of students, and with the additional threat of childhood obesity looming over lower-income communities, Simply Fresh Fruit values the importance of nutrition education that can inspire students to adopt healthier nutrition habits and improve their academic well-being,” he explains.

Walnut Park Middle School will share the results of the program with other school districts in the hopes that they may want to duplicate the success of the Eat Right, Be Bright initiative. The Latino Green Project is looking to work with local universities to determine the impact the program has on academic performance and quality of life for the middle school students and their families.

“The issues of nutrition within the Latino community are many,” Harris says. Latinos spend the larger share of their income on food, but because of the availability of cheap, nutritionally deficient processed food, few families eat fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. Latinos also tend to be diagnosed with diabetes far younger than their white, non-Latino counterparts, Harris says.

To teach the students the concepts of environmental responsibility and community involvement, Lopez says the students are “creating community gardens to have more fresh vegetables available for their consumption at lunchtime. The students have found inspiration by taking ownership of the future of their communities by recycling and teaching their younger brothers and sisters. Not bad for a bunch of sixth graders.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.