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Healthy eating comes with learning healthy cooking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2009 - We’ve heard from school boards and city councils on the issue of child and teenage obesity. As a result of adults’ efforts, school cafeterias across the country are serving lower-calorie options and pushing water instead of soft drinks. Some cities no longer allow new fast food restaurants to open within a short distance from schools.

Academia, it’s your move.

St. Louis University has entered the fray with an after-school program that’s aiming to teach students to stop eating so much fast food. As you would expect, there’s nutrition education in the form of lessons about basic food groups. But the graduate assistants in SLU’s department of nutrition and dietetics don’t just lecture: Along with other volunteers, they also teach students how to cook healthy meals.

The program takes place at several middle schools in the St. Louis Public School District (this year with six-week sessions at Fanning and Long; as well as a 10-week cooking boot camp at SLU for L’Ouverture students).

Through a partnership with Operation Food Search, students at the end of each class are given a grocery bag full of food to take home so they can remake the recipes made in the class with their friends and family. The idea is to influence what the entire family eats. The students also cook and bring meals for a program that serves low-income people and local community organizations.

The SLU program also has a physical fitness component. Working with the South City YMCA, the students play active games that incorporate nutrition lessons. Last weekend, students took part in an event at the Tower Grove Farmers' Market that included interactive cooking demonstrations -- the students built a parfait from several food group stations -- and a mile run.

SLU is also working with SLPS on getting nutrition education into the science curriculum through school gardens -- eventually the schools serve a garden salad that's grown and harvested by students as part of their school lunch.

The program is underwritten by a $10,000 grant from the General Mills Foundation, in partnership with the American Dietetic Association Foundation and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Amy Moore, director of the program and an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and dietetics at SLU’s Doisy College of Health and Sciences, answered some questions about the program. Here’s a condensed version of the conversation:

Why the focus on middle school students and on teaching them to cook?

Moore: It’s an age at which kids fix their own snacks or even prepare meals for their families. Research has shown that family meals tend to be healthier, including more fiber, calcium folate and iron. They love the independence of cooking their own food. Dietary habits form at a young age and are influenced by the food environment at home, school, and in the community. Teaching kids at a young age to incorporate a variety of healthy foods in their diet helps instill lifelong healthy habits.

Healthy food is often thought of as being expensive food. How do you address this topic with students?

Moore: Many of the recipes were from the Operation Front Line curriculum, which focuses on budget-friendly meals. We also tried to utilize in-season ingredients and local products to help keep costs down. Buying food in season is a great lesson to learn when cooking to help stay on a budget. We also take the kids on a grocery shopping tour to expose them to a variety of foods and teach about budget-friendly shopping.

What specific food choices? I understand you’re promoting smoothies instead of sodas and baked fish instead of French fries…

Moore: Each week of the program has a specific focus. Starting with teaching MyPyramid they make a pizza containing all the food groups. We then walk them through each food group week by week.  So the dairy lesson is where the smoothies come in and the meat/beans lesson is where the baked fish comes in.  The nutrition education and the recipes for the day coincide to reinforce each other.

Realistically, are you telling students to eat “junk food” in moderation, or does the program stress quitting cold turkey?

Moore: Moderation is key. As long as they balance their intake with physical activity and try to incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein, there is room for a variety of all foods ... in moderation

I understand this program was run on a more limited basis before. How are you measuring the results?

Moore: We are in the process of analyzing our results of the program and hope to publish the results in a journal article. Talking with the students, we know that they are willing to try new and different foods as they were in line to try the quinoa, spinach, and goat cheese patties we made for the cooking demonstration at the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. They have also reported reading labels on food products and cooking more at home.

Finally, what lessons can adults take from this program?

Moore: Many families seem to have fallen away from family meals.  Adults can learn that cooking at home is usually the healthiest option, saves on food cost and should be a family affair.  I think when adults see the middle school kids making quinoa cakes with spinach and goat cheese, it says if a middle school child can cook so can I.  Hopefully they also realize that they are setting the eating environment and habits of their children so they should lead by example. 

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