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NMSU pilots school-based "kIds CAN" nutrition program at Estancia Elementary

ESTANCIA, N.M. - As concern about Americans' poor nutritional eating habits is making national news, the students at Estancia Elementary School are turning on to eating right.

Estancia sixth-grade students, from left, Juanita Jaramillo, Makayla McCaskill, Laura Chirinos and Benita Arrambide look at the amount of fat that is in some of their favorite foods during NMSU's school-based SNAP-Ed nutrition pilot program. All 423 students, kindergarten through sixth grade, are participating in a nutrition class each week. (NMSU Photo by Jane Moorman)

Ask any of them, even a first grader, about the U.S. Department of Agriculture "My Pyramid," and they can tell you which of the five food groups are present in a pizza.

The sixth graders can tell you which fast foods have the most "bad" fat, and which restaurant menu items are more nutritious.

During lunch, one first-grade boy proudly exclaimed "I'm eating healthy!" while he munched on celery and carrots from his sack lunch brought from home.

"It's neat to see our students thinking about what they are consuming while eating, and thinking about healthy recipes," Principal Lane Widner said. "Everyone has really embraced this program. The kids are excited. They are thinking about nutrition."

All 423 students, kindergarten through sixth grade, are participating in a New Mexico State University pilot program that has extended the popular nutrition program "Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition with kids", commonly called "kIds CAN," to the entire school year with each student participating in a nutrition class every week.

"Repetition is the key to kids learning," said Corina Chavez-Neish, Torrance County Extension home economist. "I think it's made a difference having them attend a nutritional class every week, rather than maybe receiving four lessons during the year."

The traditional "kIds CAN" program has a Cooperative Extension Service nutrition educator visiting classrooms up to four times during the school year.

"Our educators reached 38,362 students with at least one lesson and graduated 12,460 with four lessons during the 2010 fiscal year, but not every student at a school may have the opportunity to participate in the program," said Linda Wells, NMSU's ICAN program state coordinator.

When Wells learned about the success of the school-based nutrition educator program offered by Arkansas' USDA Food and Nutrition Services SNAP-Ed program, she knew she wanted to try it in New Mexico. Estancia proved to be a perfect place to pilot the program that is funded by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formally known as food stamps.

"Many of our pilot programs have occurred in the southern part of the state close to NMSU and our office, so going to Estancia is a good opportunity to expand out into state," Wells said. "The district's superintendent and elementary school principal were excited to offer the program to their students. The new elementary school has a classroom, which was designed as a science lab. It is perfect for the class that the students now call food lab."

Extension school-based nutrition educator Paula Sedillo conducts four 45-minute classes each day and sees every student every week.

"We talk about nutrition, the My Pyramid food groups and making healthy choices," Sedillo said. "Every other class meeting we prepare a new recipe. We have made stir-fry, macaroni and cheese, purple cow drink, pancakes and snake mix during the first semester of the program."

The students take home the recipe so they can share it with their family. Sedillo said she knows the students are excited about cooking because she has receive calls at home from parents when the students wanted to make the item but forgot the recipe.

"Because this is a small town, I see the parents at various activities," she said. "They tell me that their children are sharing what they are learning. One boy saw the My Pyramid logo on a restaurant menu and proceeded to tell his parents all about it."

The key messages the nutrition educator wants the students to retain is to increase their intake of healthy foods, increase their level of physical activity, improve their food safety practice, and develop basic food preparation skills.

"Our curriculum is aligned with the state-required benchmarks and standards," Wells said. "We include math when measuring ingredient portions, science when talking about how the body uses the nutrients, and writing when they do assignments."

Teaching the class is a team effort as the classroom teachers help Sedillo in the food lab.

"They get excited when we are going to food lab," said Cheryl Chavez of her kindergarten students. "They love the lessons and really love it the days they get to make the recipe. They are really getting good at recognizing which foods belong to the different food groups."

First-grade teacher India Encinias says she has noticed since her students have attended the nutrition classes they are making better food choices. "They actually know the difference between vegetables and fruits."

NMSU's ICAN is applying to receive USDA Food and Nutrition Services SNAP-Ed funds administered by the New Mexico Human Services Department to continue the program next year.

"We're excited to keep it growing," said Widner. "Hopefully this program will foster other activities that will teach the students more about food and where it comes from."