Pilot nutrition program targets kids

MARIETTA – A joint effort aimed at battling hunger and promoting health in the region is starting young, teaching second-graders how to eat healthy.

Food is Elementary, a pilot program taking interactive nutrition activities to second-grade classrooms around the Marietta City school district, is the first of what organizers hope to be many initiatives by a partnership of the Memorial Health System, Peoples Bank and Marietta College.

“It’s really important that we start healthy behavior habits with the students now so they can grow into it,” said Katie Starr, a second-grade teacher at Phillips Elementary School.

Jennifer Offenberger, director of marketing and public relations for the Memorial Health System, said teaching children about nutrition ties in well with the goal of ending hunger.

“Sometimes hunger isn’t just about ‘Do I have enough food to eat?’ It’s about ‘Am I eating properly for my body?'” she said.

Food is Elementary, a national, evidence-based program, was developed by Dr. Antonia Demas of the Food Studies Institute and is designed to teach children basic nutrition and cooking skills. On Thursday, Marietta College sophomore Courtney Knoch told Starr’s students about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program, an updated approach to the food pyramid system that encourages a healthy, balanced diet.

The children identified whether foods belonged in the category of fruit, vegetable, grain, protein or dairy, and learned about whole and processed foods. They also offered their unsolicited opinions on the guidelines for healthy eating, such as when Knoch noted dairy is the smallest component of the MyPlate model.

“Even if you do get ice cream, it’s got to be the smallest amount,” she said.

“Awwwww!” a student piped up.

To illustrate the difference between processed and whole foods, Knoch had the children taste a fruit-flavored breakfast cereal and fresh strawberries.

“The strawberries have all-natural sugar in them,” she said. “So they’re sweet all by themselves. You don’t have to add anything to them.”

The students agreed the strawberries were the better choice.

“I liked to try the strawberries,” second-grader Keely Kleintop said. “Because they’re more healthy.”

The children were also excited to see the plastic storage bags containing the actual amount of sugar found in chocolate milk, soy milk and orange juice, as well as Coca-Cola, which had the most.

“I didn’t know Coke was that bad for you,” second-grader Weston Davis said.

Although one student jokingly suggested the limit on daily sugar intake should be “infinity,” they all seemed to pay attention and were quickly able to name foods that were processed and foods that were whole.

“I love it so far,” said Knoch, an international leadership studies and Spanish major, who is one of 10 MC students enlisted to serve as food educators over a 12-week period. “I’m learning a lot, almost as much as they are. So it’s cool to watch everybody grow and learn.”

Earlier in January, during the first of 12 planned Food is Elementary sessions, Starr said her students learned about proper hand-washing and were excited to get to use a black light to see how clean they’d really gotten their hands.

After the pilot program, Offenberger said the group would like to see Food is Elementary expand to other area schools.

“We would love to have it in every school in Washington and Wood County in the future,” she said.

And while children’s health is the starting point, it is by no means the extent of the partnership between Memorial, Marietta College and Peoples Bank.

“We definitely want to start our first program, do it well, make sure it’s growing and then move on to our next task,” Offenberger said.

“We are talking about our next initiative, which will, we think, be focused around the food banks in our community.”

According to a release announcing the collaboration, hunger among the youngest Ohioans is growing and will have a major impact on not only health care costs, but also educational achievement, worker productivity and eventually the ability of the state and nation to compete in a global economy. Ohio Food Banks report more than 730,000 Ohio children struggle with food insecurity.

“We are at a crossroads in the United States where hunger exists side-by-side with a national obesity epidemic, especially among children,” Memorial Health System president and CEO Scott Cantley said in the release. “There has never been a greater need to help individuals and families learn about accessing and choosing healthful food options.”