Turnips, Quinoa and Carrots

Photo by Marit Harm

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“Let me see your bear claw,” Lisa Kingery instructs a seventh grade student at Longfellow school on Milwaukee’s south side.

The girl is perfecting her knife skills while chopping a sweet potato – – a food that many of the 30 bilingual students in Mr. Sisnero’s class say they had never heard of.

The students learn that “bear claw” means that tiny fingers should be curled under during cutting. “Pole to pole” and “equator” are some of the other simple terms Kingery uses to teach proper knife techniques.

Kingery, Food and Nutrition Program Director at the Fondy Food Center, is one of the developers of this hands-on cooking course called Youth Chef Academy. Mr. Sisnero’s class is in the eighth week of a 12-week curriculum. Today, the students are learning about local and global food systems and preparing two recipes with root vegetables.

The program is run in collaboration with the Center for Urban Population Health and is one of many federally funded programs in Milwaukee Public Schools combating childhood obesity.

According to a March 2012 Pew Research study, 57 percent of Americans believe the government should play a role in reducing obesity among children.

The Let’s Move campaign, spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, pushes programs and policies that teach about healthy food and promote physical activity. According to Letsmove.gov, one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese, and that number is even higher in impoverished communities.

One of the components of the initiative is a “Chefs Moves to Classrooms” campaign, encouraging local chefs to visit schools and inspire kids to eat healthy foods.

Kingery, a registered dietician, developed all recipes for Youth Chef Academy. Today’s dishes: sweet potato latkes and root vegetable soup. The 30 students split into four supervised teams and get to work measuring, chopping, sautéing and cooking.

Those brave enough to sample the ingredients lick small heaps of cayenne pepper off their freshly washed hands.

“It’s spicy, but it’s good!” declares Fatima.

Reversing the Trend

There are varying statistics about obesity rates, but experts agree that the trend is increasing. According to the 2007 National Survey for Children’s Health, 31.6 percent of children (ages 10 to 17) in the United States are considered overweight or obese. Wisconsin falls slightly below the national average with 31 percent.

Brett Fuller, Milwaukee Public Schools health and fitness program curriculum specialist says that number is even higher in high school students: around 35 percent according to a 2011 youth risk behavior study.

“[Youth Chef Academy] is an opportunity for them to not only learn about [healthy foods] but to taste and find out how easy it is to make healthy food,” says Fuller, “They’re learning skills that they’re going to take back to their families.”

The home environment plays a large role in the childhood obesity epidemic, says Lora de Oliveira, registered dietician and health sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

“There’s a lot of emphasis on what kids consume in school, but most of the junk food, high-calorie food and soda that’s consumed is actually consumed in kids’ homes,” says de Oliveira. “So parents are probably not exercising as much control and positive influence on kids as they should.”

The students’ abilities to make healthy food choices will be evaluated at the end of the program, along with:

·  Knowledge of the local food system and whole foods

·  Experience testing new foods

·  Acquisition of culinary skills

·  Weekly fruit and vegetable intake

The evaluation is conducted through pre- and post- student surveys, qualitative observations made my project staff, parent phone interviews and student discussion groups.

“The question comes down to, first off, ‘Is this an effective way of teaching students and is it going to make changes in their lives?’” asks Fuller. “And, if it is, how can we do it in a way that we can do it in every school in the district?”

Milwaukee County’s largest nutrition program

Youth Chef Academy isn’t the only nutrition program getting involved in the Milwaukee Public School system to educate students on healthy choices. The Milwaukee affiliate of the University of Wisconsin Extension Nutrition Education Program (WNEP) is the largest in the county.

The USDA-funded program is directed toward low-income families and individuals, focusing on meal planning, label reading and food safety. The eight nutrition educators visit public schools, community centers, senior centers, counseling and treatment centers and children’s associations.

U.S. Grant Elementary School is one of WNEP educator Kazoua Thao’s placements. To be eligible for the federally funded service, at least 51 percent of students must be considered low-income. According to the district report card from the 2006-2007 school year, 77 percent of students in Milwaukee Public Schools received free or reduced lunch.

“Who had breakfast today and what did you have?” Thao asks the 29 first-graders.

Responses include toast, milk, cereal, French toast, grapes, kiwi and eggs.

Today is Thao’s first lesson in Mrs. Cira and Mrs. Tesch’s classroom and she is introducing My Plate, the visual dietary guideline that recently replaced the food pyramid, teaching about grains and touching on food safety.

“Grains are healthy because they give you a lot of energy to help you stay strong,” she says. “Whole grains are even better for you because they have fiber.”

Thao passes around mini bags of grains for the kids to observe and feel: White, brown and wild rice, orzo, polenta, corn, bulgur, rye and couscous.

“I’ve had quinoa, and the corn one [polenta],” says one student near the front.

To show that healthy eating and physical activity go hand-in-hand, a short intermission of “popping like popcorn,” “rolling like a tortilla,” “twisting like a pretzel” and other moves get the kids energy levels up.

The curriculum for WNEP is developed by specialists in Madison, where it is peer-reviewed and made available for use in counties across the state, according to Rosamaría Martinez, Milwaukee County’s Nutrition Education Administrator.

It is not a requirement for the educators to have a background in nutrition. Thao, who graduated from UW-Madison five years ago, has a degree in Family and Consumer Education.

“Our educators are people from the community teaching in the community,” says Martinez. Of the nine WNEP educators in Milwaukee County, four speak Spanish and one [Thao] speaks Hmong.

Thao, who leads classes for parents and seniors as well, says it is important for elders to model healthy behavior to children.

“Parents are always asking for more quick and easy recipes,” she says. “But it is hard to avoid the high-processed foods. It’s also frustrating to come into a classroom and see that the teacher is drinking soda or has a bag of McDonald’s sitting out.”

Just as Kingery taught the seventh graders at Longfellow about how an apple gets from a farm to the store through packing and manufacturing, Thao teaches the first-graders about the food system as well. Pictures of corn, oat, rice and wheat plants demonstrate to the first-graders that grain foods come from the ground and must be made into foods like pancakes or taco shells.

Community Produced

The importance of the local food system and eating foods as close to their original forms as possible is seen through a partnership between a north side elementary school and Growing Power, a national nonprofit based in Milwaukee.

Growing Power’s focus is to lead and support the development of local food systems through educating on sustainable growing, processing, marketing and distributing practices.

The collaboration brought a community garden to Maple Tree Elementary School in 2007. Growing Power leased the five-acre plot for 20 years from the city of Milwaukee.

Each of the 17 classrooms at Maple Tree lends a hand in maintaining the garden, but the garden thrives with the help of more than 500 community members, according to Growing Power. Other organizations involved in the project include the Millwood Park and Granville Heritage Neighborhood Associations, West Granville Presbyterian Church, Boys and Girls Club and area businesses.

Crops have included peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, pumpkins, greens and cucumbers.

The Maple Tree School garden isn’t the only way Growing Power is involved with Milwaukee Public Schools. Its “Farm Fresh to MPS” program has provided locally grown food, like sunflower micro-greens and carrot sticks, to 46 schools.

According to a 2011 project report, Growing Power provided approximately ten thousand Milwaukee Public School students with a locally grown, fresh snack during the 2010-2011 school year. Since last October, more than five tons of carrots have been provided.

Road Blocks

With budget cuts and federal or state mandates, schools often don’t have the resources to implement health education programs. Gym and recess times are slashed in order to meet curriculum mandates, and while schools that utilize a federally funded breakfast and lunch program are required to have a wellness policy in place, many may not even be implemented.

“The limited funding that schools have to deliver these programs really can compromise their ability to offer these services to kids,” says de Oliveira.

Fuller says that the challenge to getting external programs into every school in the district is funding and manpower. For example, in addition to Kingery, three others assist with the Youth Chef Academy lessons for a class of 30 students.

De Oliveira says that to see significant improvements of childhood obesity trends, changes to our food environment and efforts from all aspects of the community are required. This means in schools, at home and at the supermarket. This means teachers, parents and lawmakers.

Back in the Classroom

Whether it was the seventh-grade girl who had never tried a sweet potato, or first grader who thought grains came from animals, both now know that much more about different kinds of food after their classroom lessons.

After sampling the sweet potato latkes and root vegetable soup, Kingery asks the class if they liked the dishes. Some say they will try the recipes at home, or that they enjoyed the sour cream topping for the latkes the best.

Fatima voices her opinion for the whole class: “We didn’t like them,” she exclaims. “We loved them!”