By Matthew Tungate
Engaging fifth-grade students in nutrition and health education can be a tough job. Getting them to practice what they’ve learned can be even tougher. But teachers in Pendleton County have found a way to do both.
They have teamed with the Pendleton Co. Cooperative Extension Service office to provide the Recipe for Life, a federal grant-funded nutrition education program. As part of the program Family and Consumer Science agent Kenna Knight, works with all eight classes of 5th graders at two schools in the county to teach them about nutrition, safe food preparation, table manners and the importance of eating together as a family. She spends a day in each classroom and, in return, each class spends a day preparing a meal at the Cooperative Extension Service office, she said.
“It’s probably, by far, my favorite activity to do,” Knight said.
Recipe for Life serves several counties, including Pendleton, according to Debra Cotterill, the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Nutrition Education Program director. It is part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and targets low-income families and individuals to provide nutrition education (jointly called SNAP-Ed).
UK Cooperative Extension Service agents provide nutrition education services for school-aged children in all 120 counties, Cotterill said. Agents have access to dozens of programs and target schools that likely have high numbers of students who participate in SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps). Schools must have 50 percent or more of their students on free or reduced-priced meals or enroll children who live in high poverty neighborhoods, she said.
Cotterill said families with the lowest incomes are the least likely to be educated about nutrition or to have access to healthy foods. The result is that low-income families tend to have higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes, Cotterill said.
“It’s just such a huge problem and it’s affecting our economy and our quality of life, and it’s going to take all of us pitching in together to turn that tide,” she said.
Amy Hurst, a 5th-grade teacher at Northern Elementary School (Pendleton County), said her class has participated in Recipe for Life for the past five years.
She said students are particularly excited about the day in November when they get to cook at the Extension office. Students are divided into groups and work with an adult volunteer to make fruit salad, salad, a side dish, an entrée or dessert.
Students also learn about washing their hands, setting the table, knife safety, how other cultures eat dinner and the importance of eating with family, Hurst said.
The dishes students make are based on recipes that the students have collected themselves, she said. Students from each of the classes bring in a family dish and write a narrative about what the dish means to their family.
“So they’re learning a little bit of their family history, too, by having to go home and say, ‘I need a recipe and I need a story to go with it,’” Hurst said.
Around the winter break, Knight produces a Recipe for Life cookbook with all of the recipes and stories from both schools.
The culminating event is a family dinner in the spring in which the school cafeterias produce the same dishes the students made in the fall, Knight said.
Hurst knows the program is effective because her son, a 5th grader, has been more interested in what the family is eating and has told her the family needs to eat more vegetables.
“We hear all positives from the parents and the students,” she said. “It’s teaching them to be healthy eaters.”
This was the first year that Brandi Darnell, also a fifth-grade teacher at Northern Elementary, had participated in Recipe for Life, and she acknowledges being skeptical about whether her students would buy-in to it.
“I was very pleasantly surprised when they were interested in the program right away and especially with their excitement levels about the field trip to the extension office,” she said. “After participating in the cooking day at our extension office, I couldn’t stop telling everyone about it! My kids learned so much, and the atmosphere there was truly one of a family. Even students who are often difficult to engage were eager to participate and enjoyed the experience.”
Darnell said students benefit from hearing information from a new source and thinks of the meal preparation as project-based learning.
“Teachers have the difficult task of choosing high-interest, high-impact projects and activities that hit the learning goals and objectives set forth by our districts and the state,” she said. “This project not only hit the standards, it provided much more – our students were excited about what they were learning and will take those lessons with them throughout life. I believe that is the ultimate goal of all teachers, to make an impact on the lives of their students.”
That’s what Knight wants to hear. Recipe for Life started in 2008 as a way to use meal preparation and nutrition to prevent 5th grade students from participating in risky behaviors based on the Search Institute’s 40 developmental assets, she said. While nutrition information is important, they are learning other important lessons as well, Knight said.
“The more time you sit eating family meals together, the less likely those kids are going to be to make those risky choices because they’re communicating, and they’re also getting better nutrition because we know it’s better to prepare meals at home than to go to fast food or somewhere else,” she said.
Even if a county doesn’t offer Recipe for Life, Knight said extension agents can be a good resource for teachers.
“When they’re here, we’re covering math, we’re covering science, we’re covering reading. … There’s a wealth of information besides just preparing that meal that they’re learning while they’re here,” she said. “We have a wealth of curriculums that might not fit into exactly what they want, but if they tell us exactly what they want, we can find it.”