By: Amy Gannon and Angela Kraus
A crunchy bell pepper. A ripe, delicious watermelon. What do these delicious foods have in common? In addition to packing a punch of antioxidants, they both belong to food groups which are under consumed by most West Virginians—fruits and vegetables. Less than 20 percent of people in the Mountain State eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day.
Despite an increased awareness of the role that food and nutrition play in promoting a healthy lifestyle, many people still do not eat healthy foods. As a society, we do not eat nearly enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk products. We over consume fat, sweetened beverages and sodium. Poor eating habits, coupled with physical inactivity, have increased our waist lines and left us with a generation of children whose life expectancy is predicted to be shorter than their parents.
Given these grim facts, a nutrition education program with the West Virginia University Extension Service is working to help young people make better food choices. The WV Family Nutrition Programs (FNP) works to promote healthy eating behaviors and good physical activity habits among West Virginia’s children in need. In the broadest sense, nutrition education is designed to facilitate the adoption of good food choices and improve nutrition-related behaviors to promote health and well-being. More narrowly defined, FNP’s youth program is experiential in design, and uses hands-on activities to impact learning and intended behavior change. Our nutrition outreach instructors (NOIs) work to maintain a fun learning environment, while providing nutrition messages through a research-based curriculum. We teach in schools where 50 percent or more of children receive free and reduced meals. Our program is funded by two USDA grants: the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education.
FNP is delivered through multiple venues and involves activities at the individual, community and policy level. However, our expertise is delivering nutrition education to children in schools. We have been providing nutrition education in counties throughout West Virginia for over 40 years and we use that experience to more effectively deliver our message.
We’ve found that good time management skills are very important for a nutrition educator. When working in a classroom, time is of the essence. It is important to be efficient, arrive early and be ready to begin as soon as possible. It is advisable to keep a timer handy and be prepared to shorten or lengthen the lesson as needed. School schedules often change at the last minute, so expect the unexpected. Most importantly, have a smile and a helping hand ready to troubleshoot any situation.
When choosing which school to approach, it is important to start at the top with the superintendent and receive approval to work in the county. It is then a good idea to work your way up from the bottom, where you already have a connection with a teacher or principal. One line of approach might be to contact the superintendent, then the food service director, principal, teachers and school secretary. Don’t forget to leverage support from a colleague who knows a principal or teacher personally and can vouch for your program. Once you get your foot in the door and offer a professionally delivered program, you’re almost always embraced with open arms; it’s the initial contact that’s the most difficult. Persistence is the key.
As you plan a teaching schedule, it is important to set clear expectations to have appropriate teacher support in the classroom. It is important, legally and programmatically, that teachers stay in the room during the lesson. To help students stay engaged, weave your lesson through the student’s dialogue, but remember to keep them on topic and moving forward on the main ideas for the lesson. Enlist students help when possible, but manage their enthusiasm with care. Try not to overwhelm students with handouts. Plan ahead for materials that you will share with the students by letting the teacher know what you will distribute.
It is important to recognize that students look up to you, so dress professionally, but comfortably for any activities you have planned. Wear clothes that you can move in and shoes that are acceptable on gym floors, if you plan to be physically active with students (keep athletic shoes with you just in case).
Finally, when it comes to teaching nutrition, remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. Therefore, don’t just talk, but have visuals available to reinforce concepts. Nutrition can be an abstract subject. You can generate interest and help make thoughts more concrete by doing food demonstrations and providing hands-on activities. A small amount of time spent helping children become interested in healthy foods today will pay numerous dividends toward a child’s health tomorrow. After all, community health equals community wealth.
This material was funded, in part, by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. West Virginia University is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Institution.
Amy Gannon is a registered dietitian and youth specialist with the Family Nutrition Programs in Charleston. She coordinates curriculum and nutrition education activities for youth nutrition outreach instructors across the state. She has a Master’s Degree in Dietetics and has worked in the field of nutrition education for seven years.
Angela Kraus is a nutrition outreach instructor with the Family Nutrition Programs in Clay and Braxton counties. She teaches children in grades 3-5 during the school year and coordinates nutrition camps during the summer. She has a Master’s Degree in special education and has been a classroom teacher for 17 years. She has worked as an NOI for five years.