Food, fun, and family engagement at Belle Haven Elementary School

How do you turn lessons about food into life skills? Ask City Connects Coordinator Keisha Anderson. 

Anderson, the coordinator at Belle Haven Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, teaches students about nutrition using her own upbeat energy, a cooking competition, and the help of a community partner. 

Anderson worked with Donna Kuykendall to ensure that an afterschool nutrition program was both informative and fun. Kuykendall works as a Regional Program Assistant for Central State University Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

When Anderson and Kuykendall put their heads together, they came up with two culminating events: a “Chopped” competition and a family dinner.

Making nutrition fun is a crucial part of addressing challenging health issues, Anderson says. 

“Belle Haven’s students are disproportionately and negatively impacted by health concerns that can be prevented through healthy eating and movement. High blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes can be prevented based on what we eat and how much we move.”

The afterschool nutrition program began as a chance for kids to try new recipes and new food, including snack toasts with toppings such as avocado, balsamic glaze, ricotta cheese, cream cheese, peanut butter, or hummus as well as various berries, apples,and bananas.

“We made cucumber sushi,” Kuykendall says, which involves cutting the centers out of cucumber slices and filling the resulting hole with carrots, bell peppers, and other vegetables. “After just a couple of sessions more kids were apt to try some new foods.”

“I don’t vilify any foods. Instead I teach kids that we have different types of food. Foods high in fats, sodium, and sugar should really be eaten only on occasion, not daily. I teach youth that each time they have the ability to make a healthy choice, that is the smart choice. 

“I encourage them to try new foods. The foods, particularly vegetables, they hate, I encourage them to try again but in a different way. We also talk about what drives us to eat, and how what we eat at the mall or on a trip is going to look different than what we eat at home.” 

 In addition to recipes, the kids learned measurement, cutting, and mixing skills as well as healthy eating strategies. They also strengthened their social-emotional skills, learning about table etiquette and leadership skills.

The culminating “Chopped” competition was based on the television show of the same name. Belle Haven’s version of Chopped took place in the school’s cafeteria. Twenty-five students competed on teams. In addition to cooking, the young chefs practiced their speaking and presentation skills. There was a panel of guest judges drawn from the school and the local community.

“It was a great event,” Kuykendall says.

“We’re looking forward to doing it next year,” Anderson adds.

Anderson also took the nutrition approach a step further, using it to engage families by creating a community feast night that kicked off what she calls a family summer engagement tour. She and Kuykendall invited parents to come in and cook with their children.

“Each family made a dish,” Kuykendall says. “One family made a veggie lasagna. Another family made a salad. Another family made yogurt parfaits as a dessert. And another family learned how to make a salad dressing from scratch. We had a healthy hamburger helper. And we sent the recipes home with families so they can make the dishes at home.”

“It was a chance for parents to cook and play with their kids,” Anderson adds, “We played ‘nutritional chairs,’ a spin on musical chairs, and everyone had a ball. The parents were so appreciative of the information and the engagement because it was also a way for parents to get to know each other.”

Over the course of the summer, kids and parents will be able to participate in different nutrition events at different settings thanks to the support of other community partners.

It’s exciting to see how food, cooking, and creative community partners can become the basis for helping kids and their families connect and thrive.

As Anderson explains:

“Family engagement can’t just be during the school year from August to May. The more that I can pour into parents over the summer – in terms of holistic health: physical, mental, spiritual , psychological, and social health — the more parents can pour into their children; and then their children can come back to school better able to learn.”

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