Monday, March 18, 2013

Priming the Pump: Helping Families Find Motivation for Making Healthy Food Choices

A nutrition professor of mine once said, “You can’t motivate people to change, they have to motivate themselves.” Since joining FoodCorps last August, I have wanted to create an educational opportunity just for parents to offer tips and information about helping their students eat more healthfully. I am passionate about working with families because I know there are many factors that play into what goes into a sack lunch or a dinner meal. I also know that early food experiences influence lifelong eating habits, so family eating practices are very important. Because I am new to the district, I wanted to serve in the community for a while before figuring out what nutrition topics are important to Fayetteville parents and how best to present them, or if they are even interested in nutrition education.               

Ally and Sophia team up to talk nutrition at a family
healthy cooking class.
For the last few months I have been serving with garden clubs and cooking classes, talking with PTO presidents and other school staff, and providing free nutrition counseling to parents and students through the district’s Wellness and Education Clinic. These experiences have given me a better feel for the nutrition topics of interest in the parent community. Next, I sat down with my supervisor and the district’s Coordinated School Health Coordinator to better understand what sort of setting and timeframe parents would be willing to come to an educational event. We thought a class series would interest parents but it would have to include kid-friendly activities or child care, occur before dinner, and be promoted like crazy. I remember thinking, “Let’s be realistic. The classes will be a success if I can get just five parents to show up at these events”. If national service and community outreach have taught me anything, it’s that 1) low turnout does not mean low impact and 2) offer free food at any event you host-and advertise that food.

Photo credit Alison Hewitt
The night of my first child nutrition class, 20 people showed up! Success. The constant, shameless promotion and free snacks worked! I presented on basic nutrition for kids and picky eating. The presentation seemed to go well. The parents and older kids were nodding and asking questions and the young kids were busy coloring and making masks and munching on healthy snacks.  I presented a Think Your Drink activity in which everyone guessed how many teaspoons of sugar were in various sweetened drinks and then parent-kid dyads scooped the actual amount of sugar in each drink into cups with plastic spoons. Oh, I almost forgot, community outreach has also taught me that, in some cases, eliciting “shock and awe” is acceptable.  Every parent and child had a look of astonishment on their faces as they scooped up to 16 teaspoons of sugar into their cups.

At the end of the presentation, a middle-schooler asked how to make the kale chips I offered as a snack. The other attendees were also very interested in knowing too. I almost squealed with joy. I briefly explained how to prepare them and made sure to take their email addresses to send them the recipe. Since then the kale chips recipe has been sent to the families in attendance, the coordinated school health committee, the assistant superintendent and a lady in Florida. Double success!

My second class in the series was presented at in existing parent event called, Parent University. I presented Meals on the Go and Healthier Fast Food Options. Though there was very low turnout at the event as a whole, and I only had two people total attend my three sessions, I feel like the time and effort preparing for the event was worth it. I set up a one-on-one nutrition counseling appointment with the daughter of one attendee after one session and helped a frustrated single mom of three troubleshoot quick and cheap lunch and dinner ideas for her family. These conversations may not have happened if more parents were in attendance. The mom of three also told me that after attending the first nutrition class, she and her three kids stopped drinking soda and chocolate milk—cold turkey. She had no idea there was so much sugar in all those drinks. The kids order water at restaurants on their own now, she said. She reports feeling great since she stopped drinking soda and plans to attend the rest of my classes.

It’s true you can’t motivate people to change. I can tell people about healthy eating until I am blue in the face, but if they are not self-motivated to make that change, it ain’t gonna happen. I have experienced this time and time again. However, you can offer knowledge and teach skills. You can prime the pump. I plan to continue the child nutrition class series, shamelessly promote it, and offer free healthy snacks. It’s rewarding to know that the information I share is of value to motivated parents who find the time to attend nutrition classes and focus their energy on healthy lifestyle changes for their families. 

by Ally Mrachek

Feel free to contact us if you would like resources from Ally's presentation. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It’s just about time to start planting our spring garden. Unfortunately for me, weeds have proliferated to such an extent that I’m afraid to even lift the frost cloth to see really just how much needs to be done. “One step at a time” is the mantra that saves me from hiding in my closet of an office all spring…

Nitrogen fixing cover crop at Holt.
Garden Club was slow this winter, but I have high hopes that students will be scrambling to get involved once it gets warm enough to go outside again. It’s amazing what a 10-year-old boy will accomplish when you give him a hoe and a pile of dirt. Students have been starting seeds indoors and learning to prune blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, and apple trees. We’ve been trying wild new things like tofu, eggplant, and sweet potato fries with the skins on! This week, we’ll create an enlarged map of the garden to plan out where we will transplant all of our seedlings in the coming months. Soon, our pile of weeds, cover crop, and old lettuce will be transformed into the productive garden we’ve been dreaming about.

In the classroom, I’ve worked with math classes to map the garden to practice proportions, ratios, and scale. In science classes, we’ve discovered the caloric content of Cheetos and walnuts by burning them using a homemade calorimeter. The calorimeter lesson was part of the 6th grade energy unit and gave the students a better understanding of what calories are and how they act as an energy source for our bodies. Students were able to observe that a walnut burns for about four times as long as a Cheeto, and connect that observation with the understanding that eating a walnut will give you energy for longer than eating a Cheeto. We then had an economics debate, coming up with arguments for why one might prefer to buy Cheetos over walnuts as a snack and vice versa.

Teaching this lesson made it obvious how little most students know about energy balance and nutrition. Many students were surprised to learn that our bodies are burning calories constantly, not only when we “exercise.” Although many 6th graders maintained their loyalty to junk food on the grounds of taste, there were several students who showed a level of curiosity about nutrition and health that should be nurtured. Unfortunately, these topics are not given their due in schools these days when there’s not even enough time to fit in the number of minutes of physical activity mandated by the federal government each week, so the more we can sneak them into core subjects, the better.

Last but not least, our very own Arkansas Fellow, Rachel Spencer, was head chef at my last hands-on cooking class for Holt Families. Thank you Rachel for showing our lovely families that Southerners can eat vegetarian, and without giving up the BBQ sauce!

- by Sophia Gill

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Garden Club Beginnings @ Cloverdale Middle

Lately, lots of things have been going on in Little Rock. My service plan has been revisited and revised, I’m spending more time in the classroom, and my salads have been getting fewer lip snarls. The biggest thing, however, is garden club!

In January, I almost lost the club sponsor I tirelessly pursued during the first semester. Without a faculty sponsor, I couldn’t have a club at the school. I was discouraged because without garden club, students from outside of the research study would not be able to enjoy this slice of paradise! Fortunately, my sponsor was able to stay on and commit to at least this semester. We met at the end of January to discuss what we envisioned for the club, what time and date worked best for both us and the students, and how we would divide responsibilities. All went well.

I solicited the help of my friends to help me make posters for garden club. We spent a few nights with card stock, pencils, markers, and crayons creating these advertisements. A week before the club’s first meeting I put them up around the school. That whole week announcements were made in the morning and the evening to remind students about the fun they could have after school in the garden.

On February 4, I waited for the students to roll in. 4:15 came and went, and one student was sitting in the room. At 4:25, two more rolled in. I was overjoyed! My sponsor and I sat down with the students, butcher paper, and pens. We told them what our ideas were, and then they shared theirs. Then we went outside. The weather was not lovely. Our perpetually flooded garden was wet. Normally, walking outside with a class would mean talking through sighs and moans about clean shoes. Not this group. These guys were prepared. Armed with the digging forks I gave them, they stood around the bed I had selected.

I asked them if they knew what plant we were looking at. No one answered. Silences never make me comfortable, but I waited it out. Finally, one girl noticed a bare shoulder. She correctly identified the bed as being filled with carrots. Then harvesting began. I showed them how to pick up tons of carrots at once with a fork, and then how to really get dirty by picking out the carrots by hand. This group liked mud under their nails.

Together we filled a five-gallon container to the top with carrots. Then the rain came. We hurried to the greenhouse where I had water ready to rinse the carrots. I eyeballed the portions out to give each student the same amount to take home, and then I remembered that we needed to weigh everything that left the garden. The students weighed their bag individually, tared it out, and weighed their carrots. The last bag weighed had almost double the weight of the others.

Without even thinking, the boy holding this bag took handfuls of his bounty and gave them to the other students. We weighed them again and everyone went home with almost three pounds of carrots. We ended our first meeting armed with a list of expectations and goals and each student went home with carrots to share with their families.

The next day, I walked into the media center and I saw the boy who shared his harvest during garden club. He pulled a container from his backpack and it was full of carrots! He told me that he helped his mom rinse, scrub, and cut the carrots when he got home. This morning, he took a tub to school and she took one to work. He can't wait to bring home more!

by Jade Salzman