A few weeks ago in this column, I wrote about celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution - his effort to educate inner-city kids about cooking, nutrition and wise food choices - and opined that it would be nice to have something like that under way here in Baton Rouge.
On the advice of some readers who liked the column and agreed with me, I started looking around to see what is already being done in this community and found out about a great program administered by the LSU AgCenter.
It’s called Smart Choices Youth and it’s part of the federally-funded Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, which sends trained faculty and staff from the AgCenter into participating public schools to teach kids about such nutrition-related topics as the new My Plate food icon, the importance of eating leafy green vegetables and why a candy bar and a Coke isn’t such a great snack.
They teach the kids how to make easy, healthful meals, providing them with recipes like the one below for Fresh Fruit and Yogurt Parfaits.
The classes are held on a monthly or bi-monthly basis and last between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on how much time a school allots for them. They are scheduled during PE or family and consumer science class, and would seem like the kind of enrichment opportunity a school in East Baton Rouge Parish - where four out of five children are on free or reduced lunch - would jump at the chance to work into their school calendar.
But last year, just 16 public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, less than 20 percent of all schools, took advantage of the program.
That’s not a dismal record, and the AgCenter is rightfully proud of the job it has done.
But given that one-third of all schoolchildren in Louisiana are obese, and the state has one of the highest rates of juvenile diabetes in the country, you might hope for more participation from schools, especially since the program is free.
Sharman Charles, who administers Smart Choices for the AgCenter, suspects more schools do not participate because principals are either unaware of the program or have difficulty fitting it into an already over-scheduled school day.
Certainly, the public schools in our community - indeed, in our whole state - have plenty of challenges and need every minute of instructional time they can squeeze out of the day. But basic classes in health and nutrition are critically important to these kids, who often do not get this kind of education in their homes.
The program has a track record of success, too. In 2009-2010, the last year for which data is available, half of the 4,000 students who participated in the program showed improvement in “healthy lifestyle knowledge.”
Perhaps more impressive is the anecdotal evidence, which suggests that kids who participate in Smart Choices are taking what they learn and sharing it with their families and friends, disseminating that knowledge in their communities.
Charles said feedback from students is very positive and they delight in bringing healthful recipes home that they can share with their families.
“We try to make it fun for them and we try to be very realistic in how we approach it,” Charles said. “We don’t teach them that certain foods are bad. We try to show them that other foods are better and that the key in everything is moderation.”
Last week, Charles sent a letter to all school principals in East Baton Rouge parish, again reminding them about the program and inviting them to take advantage of it. Last year, more than 6,500 students participated. This year, Charles’ goal is 10,000.
Let’s make sure school principals, teachers, board members and parents know this opportunity is available for their children and encourage them to take advantage of it. There’s no downside, and the consequences of continuing to let our children suffer out of ignorance from high rates of obesity and its attenuating health problems will inhibit their ability to get a good education and lead healthy, productive lives in the future. And that’s a problem with which we all will have to deal in the future .
For more information on Smart Choices, contact Charles at the LSU AgCenter, (225) 389-3055.