Aug. 1, 2007

Kids prepare unfamiliar, healthy foods in class that become part of school lunch in CU nutrition-education program

"That's it! From now on I'm only having kid-made salad," claimed a Caroline Elementary School second-grader in Ithaca, N.Y., and an avowed greens hater, who had just helped prepare and devour a salad with four varieties of lettuce and homemade salad dressing with fresh garlic in class.

The chow-down was part of a food-based nutrition education program that was developed in the mid-1990s by educators and health professionals representing the Tompkins County Department of Health, Cornell and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-TC), but was put on hold for several years due to lack of funding. Now with new federal funding from Cornell Cooperative Extension, the project is back in school, led by Cornell nutrition researcher Jennifer Wilkins in collaboration with CCE-TC.

"The program -- FEAST [Families, Education, Agriculture and Schools Together] for Health -- integrates classroom lessons on a set of New York state foods with recipes to use them," says Wilkins. "The classroom nutrition and food education is capped when the same recipes the kids use in class are offered by the school cafeteria to the entire student body. The new menu items are more readily accepted when students have studied, prepared and tasted the food already."

In fact, Wilkins' preliminary research results show that among the students who participate in the school lunch program, those who took part in FEAST for Health consistently choose the new, healthier menu item more often than students who had no exposure to the food or recipe.

How oats are used with second-graders

Oat Muffins (Recipe for 12 muffins):

1 large egg or 2 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup applesauce (chunky style)
1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/3 cup lowfat milk
1 cup rolled quick-cooking oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
cinnamon and sugar to sprinkle on top

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Wash hands.
3. In a bowl, stir together the egg, oil, applesauce, brown sugar, milk and oats.
4. In another bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
5. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and stir just until smooth.
6. Fill 12 paper-lined muffin cups 2/3 full.
7. Sprinkle muffins with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.
8. Bake in preheated hot oven for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of muffin comes out clean.

Three lessons -- winter squash in the fall, oats in the winter and greens in the spring -- were piloted this past year with the second-graders at Caroline Elementary School, and three more will be piloted this coming year in different schools. In each case, the teachers are trained in the activities before they teach the lessons, which included where and how the foods are grown, varieties, nutritional value and how to prepare them. Lessons also incorporate information on basic nutrition, food safety and food handling and are consistent with federally mandated wellness policies focusing on nutrition education and school food service. The lessons also are applicable to the math, language arts, science and social studies curricula.

"We find that when kids are given the opportunity to touch different foods, examine them, taste them and prepare a recipe with them, they're more likely to eat them later," said Wilkins, a Cornell senior extension associate and author of a monthly syndicated newspaper column on consumer food choices. "This is very important when it comes to fruits and vegetables, which few kids in the United States get enough of."

The second-graders also conducted a schoolwide marketing campaign about the new dishes to be served in the cafeteria, which "extended the benefits of the program to students in the other grades, who became more willing to try the new recipe when samples were offered [to all students] in the cafeteria," says project collaborator Carole Fisher, a community educator at CCE-TC.

The project team believes the success of FEAST for Health lies in its approach, which is "not top down, but rather, bottom up," explains one of the original authors, Susan Travis, instructor in Cornell's Division of Nutritional Sciences. "The nutrition education in the classroom is integrated from the beginning with cafeteria staff. This partnership is essential to the program's long-term sustainability."

Once completed next summer, FEAST for Health will include eight lesson plans for grades two through four, including recipes for both classroom and food-service use, messages for the school menu and take-home newsletters for parents.