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NMSU Turns Summer Meal Programs into Healthy Eating Classes for Youth

ALBUQUERQUE-Free lunches and lessons in healthy eating were part of summer vacation this year for Adrian Perez, 10, and his three younger brothers.



From left, Orlando Perez, 5, and brothers Adrian, 10, Victor, 8, and Carlos, 7, learn about the food guide pyramid at the Tierra West Mobile Home Park picnic grounds in Albuquerque, one of the city's summer meal sites for children. NMSU nutrition educators taught some 7,000 youngsters about healthy eating at government-sponsored meal sites statewide this summer. (08/06/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

The Perez boys learned the importance of eating lots of fruits and vegetables by playing with toy models of food and locating them on colorful posters of the food guide pyramid as they ate lunch at the Tierra West Mobile Home Park picnic grounds on Albuquerque's West Mesa, one of the city's summer meal program sites for children.

"We learned that vegetables and milk are good for you," Perez said. "We love broccoli and carrots and milk, so we're doing good."

Like the Perez brothers, about 7,000 children received nutrition education classes at government-sponsored meal sites around the state this summer from New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service educators who used games and toys to teach about the food guide pyramid and balanced meals.

In one game, teams of kids raced to deposit plastic models of food in baskets that represented different food groups. In another, the kids used tiny magnetic rods to catch fish toys submerged in a bucket of water. The children identified food pictured on each toy according to food pyramid groups.

Educators also taught kids about food safety, such as washing their hands before eating, said Mary Chavez, a nutrition educator who taught the class attended by the Perez brothers.

"We have the kids wash their hands with special soap and then we shine a black light on them to show white spots where there are still germs," she said. "The kids love the games, and it helps them understand and remember the lessons better."

Extension educators taught classes in about half the counties where summer meal programs were offered this year, said Linda Wells, program coordinator for NMSU's Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition (ICAN) program.

The summer meal programs, which benefit about 50,000 youngsters statewide, are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the state to allow youth who get free or low-cost meals during the school year to continue receiving assistance during the summer.

Albuquerque's Food Service Program for Children is the largest single program in the state, benefiting about 11,000 children under 18, said program manager Henry Saavedra. The city provided free lunches during June and July at 137 parks and community centers in low-income neighborhoods, plus free breakfast at 65 of those sites, Saavedra said.

Extension educators hoped to reinforce healthy eating habits among children that will last long after summer vacation ends, said Holly Woelber, Extension Support Council president.

Virginia Alexander, a home economist who supervises the ICAN program in Bernalillo County, said children can avoid developing chronic illnesses later in life if they learn to eat better when they're young.

"Child obesity has really gotten out of hand, and more and more kids are becoming diabetic at young ages," Alexander said.

Extension educators also took advantage of summer meal classes to teach parents about healthy eating habits for themselves and their kids, Alexander said. Educators gave literature about nutrition to parents who accompanied their children at meal sites, and many decided to sign up for ICAN's free nutrition education courses.

"By focusing on kids, we find that parents get more involved in encouraging healthy eating habits at home," Alexander said. "It's a great family approach that turns healthy eating into a family affair."