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UF Nutrition Program Teaches Kids Healthy Habits

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Kim Dixon dixonk@mail-hes.stjohns.k12.fl, (904) 692-1515
Bonnie Rowe, (904) 824-4564
Isabel Valentin-Oquendo, (352) 846-2770

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HASTINGS, Fla.—To help children from low-income areas learn good eating habits, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is bringing nutrition education to elementary schools as part of a statewide program.

“The Family Nutrition Program gets kids excited about eating right,” said Kim Dixon, a second-grade teacher at Hastings Elementary School in rural northeast Florida. “It’s a parent’s dream come true.”

Once a week, all Hastings Elementary students in grades one through five get a visit from FNP. Second-graders like Dixon’s students study the basic food groups and their nutritional value. Older children learn more in-depth material. The program is cumulative, so by fifth grade, students have a working knowledge of meal planning and food preparation.

She said FNP emphasizes use of low-cost foods, a necessity for many Hastings families.

“Children here don’t have the same opportunities as kids in larger cities,” said Dixon, a lifetime resident of Hastings. “We depend on farming, and things have been rough the past few years.”

Hastings is known for potato and cabbage production. Market changes have caused some farmers to grow less labor-intensive crops such as sod, Dixon said. Others have left the business.

“We need programs like this to strengthen our community,” she said. “When our kids have basic living skills it’s more likely they’ll become successful adults.”

Dixon said the program also benefits Hastings Elementary teachers, providing new resources and reducing class preparation time. Bonnie Rowe, an employee of UF’s St. Johns County Cooperative Extension Office, teaches all 14 FNP classes at the school, using a curriculum developed by the extension office.

“The kids really take the lessons to heart,” Rowe said. “Teachers love it when they hear students talking about nutrition at lunchtime. We try to make the lessons fun, so good eating seems more like a game than a chore.”

She said teaching aids such as videos, plays and puppet shows capture the attention of younger children. To engage older students, she relies on food demonstrations where children sample healthy dishes, and sometimes help prepare them.

To make hummus, a Middle Eastern chickpea dip, Rowe seals the ingredients in freezer bags and lets students mash the contents to a smooth consistency. Food demonstrations encourage students to taste new foods, she said.

“Kids will eat things in class they wouldn’t try at home,” she said. “I’m a mom and I know how it is. In FNP they rarely turn up their noses at anything.”

She said some food demonstrations use vegetables grown at the school, in a garden maintained for FNP. The program also holds an annual nutrition fair with games, information booths and other activities.

Hastings Elementary is one of five St. Johns County schools using FNP, said Isabel Valentin-Oquendo, statewide FNP curriculum coordinator based in Gainesville. The other schools are Webster Elementary, Crookshank Elementary, Gaines Alternative and Evelyn Hamblen Center, all in St. Augustine. For a school to participate in the program, more than half its students must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. At Hastings Elementary the figure is 91 percent.

Statewide, FNP serves about 60 elementary schools in 32 of Florida’s 67 counties, Valentin-Oquendo said. In some counties, the program is offered at other facilities such as community centers and libraries.

“Our goal this year is to expand FNP into another 10 counties,” she said. “In many areas we can serve only a small fraction of the eligible schools, due to budget constraints.”

She said FNP is part of the federal Food Stamp Education Program, and is funded by matching grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Counties seeking FNP programs must first obtain in-kind matching funds from state or local sources.

“One of the challenges we face is helping counties raise those in-kind matching funds,” Valentin-Oquendo said. “Fortunately, FNP has strong partnerships with school boards and health departments across the state that provide in-kind matching funds for many counties.”

Valentin-Oquendo said UF/IFAS has administered FNP since 1996, when the program began. Because UF cooperative extension agencies were present in every county, they provided a ready-made infrastructure for the program.

UF/IFAS contributes to FNP by providing extension agents and other personnel who help organize and teach the program, she said.