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New Mexico State University

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NMSU Extension pilots nutrition curriculum for fifth-grade students

Nationally, the percentage of children who are obese has more than doubled, and among adolescents the rate has more than tripled since 1980. Obesity is a risk factor for health conditions such as diabetes and is associated with problems such as poor self-esteem. The good news is that schools can help students adopt healthy eating and physical activity behaviors that are the key to preventing obesity.

Fifth-grade students taste a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables during the Just Be It! Healthy and Fit field trip. Students in Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Espanola school districts are participating in a nutrition curriculum pilot program being conducted by the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service's Family and Consumer Science Department. (NMSU photo)

New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics is piloting an educational program in Northern New Mexico that teaches fifth-grade students how to make healthy food and exercise choices. Cooperative Extension Service home economists in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties have introduced the Just Be It! Healthy and Fit programs in elementary school serving these counties.

Midway through the five-year pilot program, evaluation indicates that there is a significant level of increased knowledge among the students and their parents.

"The students' knowledge has had an average increase of 30 percent. They have gone from an average score of 8.83 out of 16 points on the pre-test to an average score of 14.88 on the post-test scores. This is a tremendous increase," said Diana DelCampo, Extension specialist and state coordinator of the program. "And there has been a 16-percent increase in the parents' nutrition awareness."

Increasing the students' knowledge is just one of the goals in reducing the risk factors for childhood obesity. Just Be It! is also focusing on increasing fruit and vegetable intake and physical activities.

"We have selected fifth-grade students because they have reached an age where they are beginning to make their own eating choices," said Desaree Jimenez, Rio Arriba County Extension home economist.

Fifth-grade students in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Espanola school districts participate in the nutrition and fitness field trip at the beginning of the school year, and then select classes receive bi-weekly nutrition and fitness instruction. Parents are included in the program through eight newsletters with nutritional information as well as participating with their child's take-home activity book.

Teachers of the selected eight classes say they can see a difference in their students' nutritional choices and physical activities as the year progresses.

"I was a child who was overweight and now I'm an adult who is overweight. This program hits close to home for me. Parents and families don't always know the nutritional things they should know such as the best way to eat, or how much exercise they need. I think it's vital that the kids are getting this health and nutritional information," said LeAnn DeCoeur, teacher at Eutimo Tim Salazar Elementary School in Espanola.

"Last year as Desaree Jimenez came to our class every other week, I really saw a change in the students' eating habits. I saw them eating the healthy food that was served in the cafeteria and drinking more milk," DeCoeur said. "We also changed our focus in the classroom from sugary snacks to healthy snacks, such as cheese and crackers and apples and fruit, at birthday parties and other celebrations. The kids want to do what's right. Just like in anything, they just need a little extra education so they can make healthy choices."

Just Be It! kicks off the school year with a nutrition and fitness field trip where the students participate in four 45-minute workshops entitled MyPyramid, Vary Your Veggies and Focus on Fruits, Fun with Food and Power Up with Exercise.

"The students also participate in a Just Be It! Jeopardy that tests their nutrition knowledge in a fun interactive format," Jimenez said.

During the MyPyramid workshop the students learn about USDA's recently reorganized food guide pyramid that groups food into six categories - grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans, and oils. It also categorizes physical activity into daily nutrition recommendations.

"The students learn which category various food items are grouped and the recommended daily servings for each category," said Paula Roybal Sanchez, Los Alamos County Extension home economist. "They learn that there are healthier food choices within each category, such as ice cream and cheese in the milk category, and that they should eat less of the less healthy food choices."

During the Vary Your Veggies and Focus on Fruits workshop the students learn they should eat one-and-a-half cups of fruit each day and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables each day. Jacqueline Baca, Santa Fe County Extension 4-H home economist, tells the students why it is important to eat vegetables and fruit daily by what nutrients are obtained from the food and how it helps the body function.

The Fun with Food session teaches the students about the nutrition label that appears on all food and how to read it. Tonya Montoya, Santa Fe County Extension home economist, and Kathleen Garcia of Presbyterian Health Service in Espanola developed the session that also helps students work on ways to make healthy food choices.

Power Up with Exercise shows the students the difference about aerobic and strength exercise and the importance of both in their daily activity. "You should participate in 60 minutes of physical activity every day," said Celina Roybal, physical education teacher at Espanola High School, as she led the students in a timed rope skipping exercise for the students to see how their heart rate and breathing increased during an aerobic activity.

As the school year progresses, Jimenez visits select classrooms every other week to continue reinforcing and expanding the information the students learned during the field trip.

"Through this pilot program we are developing an educational curriculum and tools that measure the success of the actual change that curriculum creates in the students," Jimenez said. "Measuring knowledge has not been the problem, but we all know what we should do. It's measuring the doing that is hard. So we are developing a way the students can record what they have eaten and how much physical activity they have had to help them become aware of the choices they are making."

The Just Be It! Healthy and Fit program is part of NMSU's Children, Youth, Families At Risk (CYFAR) strengthening community projects. CYFAR is an initiative from the United States Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Service, which provided grant funding for the Just Be It! pilot program.