Teaching young students to enjoy nutritious school meals

Following the 'Food Is Elementary' curriculum, schoolteachers are getting kids to eat their vegetables

After Asher King, a kindergartner at the Kentucky Avenue School in Shadyside, had taken a couple of bites of stir-fried brown rice with vegetables, he pronounced his verdict: "I loved it at first and now I still love it!"

Another child in Judy Gruseck's class chimed in, "This would be good for me and my brother because we don't eat a lot of vegetables!"

Some adults might have been shocked to see an entire room of 5- and 6-year-olds happily eating bowlfuls of brown rice, broccoli, green beans and carrots -- foods that kids aren't traditionally supposed to like. Rosemary Traill is used to it. She's been teaching hands-on, food-based nutrition classes in Pittsburgh schools since 2003, and in her experience, when kids learn about healthful ingredients and help prepare tasty recipes, they are often willing to try new foods.

Ms. Traill also teaches at Pittsburgh Colfax Elementary in Squirrel Hill, and since October, she's expanded to Pittsburgh Faison Primary in Homewood. Now, more teachers are putting in requests to get a food educator in their classrooms.

Ms. Traill's lessons are part of the Food is Elementary curriculum, a set of lesson plans created by Antonia Demas. Dr. Demas, who has a Ph.D. in nutrition, anthropology and education from Cornell University, is also the founder of the Food Studies Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to "changing the health destinies of children through proper nutrition and education."

Over the weekend, 20 people attended a two-day training with Dr. Demas at the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime in East Liberty. Participants each paid $100 to learn about nutrition fundamentals, explore the Food is Elementary curriculum and get a chance to practice putting together a lesson plan. To become a certified food educator, like Ms. Traill, they will also have to complete special projects, such as creating a bibliography for a particular nutritional issue, or writing a unit about the food history of their city.

According to Dr. Demas, the Food is Elementary curriculum has been taught in about 2,000 schools across the country, but these days she's more interested in building long-term, sustainable partnerships with individual school systems. "My hope is that I can establish ... a relationship with Pittsburgh," she said. Already, she has met with Michael Peck, director of food services for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

During his tenure, Mr. Peck has increased the amount of whole grains on lunch menus and gotten whole fruits from local farms into the cafeteria.

Scott Manderino, a physical education teacher at Faison Elementary and one of the participants at the weekend training, has had first-hand experience of these changes. "It's gotten better since I started teaching," he said. "Now we're offering fresh fruits and vegetables. The district is trying to buy local apples in the fall, and peaches in the spring." Still, he sees plenty of room for improvement and hopes that expanding the Food is Elementary curriculum could help drive that improvement.

A unique aspect of the Food is Elementary curriculum is that each lesson plan is based around a multi-cultural, vegetarian recipe, with different suggestions for different age groups. Students learn about nutrition, but the lesson plans also incorporate math, science, history and geography.

Aware of the importance of keeping costs low, Dr. Demas based each recipe around commodity foods, which schools can get for free from the Department of Agriculture as part of the federal subsidy for the school lunch program. Commodities make most people think of unhealthful options such as processed chicken products, tater tots and pizza, but schools can also get many kinds whole grains and legumes.

Many decision makers still believe that the biggest obstacle to introducing healthier foods is the kids themselves. "We need to make the argument that if the classroom education happens, the kids will choose our foods over the automated hot dogs," emphasized Dr. Demas.

During the weekend training, Ms. Demas used group activities to model what she sees at best practices for teaching kids about food. "Seventy-five percent of us learn best from sensory-based education," she said, referring both to her students that weekend and the children they ultimately hope to teach.

The participants broke up into groups, prepared recipes from the curriculum, then presented the food to the other groups, along with a summarized plan for hands-on activities and engaging students of different ages in the cooking process.

One group created a display of Native American artifacts, including a mortar and pestle, which the students could use to try grinding corn, they suggested.

Another group created a display of different types of flour and different shapes of Italian pasta. They suggested that kids could use their journals (an important component of the Food is Elementary curriculum) to play a matching game and learn how different pastas got their names.

Dr. Demas dreams that one day there will be a food educator in every school in the country, to teach nutrition, cooking and gardening, and to help draw connections between food and more traditional subjects.

Currently, there are food educators at two schools in Baltimore, where Dr. Demas has been working with schools for seven years. But the time may be ripe to expand to many new schools. Growing concern over childhood obesity has increased demand for nutrition education. On Feb. 9, first lady Michelle Obama announced a nationwide initiative to fight childhood obesity with physical and nutritional education. The Let's Move campaign emphasizes the important role schools can play in improving children's health.

"Schools have to understand that this has educational value," said Dr. Demas. "A root cause of learning issues is that kids are not being nourished with high-quality foods."

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman . First Published March 8, 2010 5:00 AM


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