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Bridgewater Courier News
If family meals for today’s busy families could be summed up in a word, it might be “convenience.”
How fast the food gets from the freezer to the microwave to the table shapes the awareness children have of what they eat. On the other hand, “food literacy” is a life skill that reveals the elements of how food grows, nourishes our bodies, and enhances our lives.
On that premise, the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative (NJHKI) at the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health is guiding third through fifth graders on a food literacy journey that gets them thinking outside the microwaved meal box.
Why? New Jersey is ranked 12th in the nation for obesity in children 2 to 4 years old who are enrolled in the WIC program, and nearly one third of the state’s 10 to 17 year olds are overweight or obese. As health care costs continue to soar, tackling pediatric obesity from a scientific and community-based standpoint is an urgent priority met head-on by Rutgers and the NJHKI.
NJHKI launched “Grow. Prepare. Eat,” a free virtual food literacy program offered this past summer. For this pilot program, 50 participants engaged in a six-week virtual food literacy class to learn about the source of their food, the process that food goes through from seed to plate, and how to choose, prepare, and enjoy healthy, safe, and tasty meals and snacks.
The program had two main components: twelve 30-minute live/recorded lessons covering a wide variety of food literacy topics; and post-class hands-on activities that parent/guardians and children complete together.
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Topics covered the essentials of three key areas: culinary, such as exploring flavors and textures and learning knife skills; nutrition, such as fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, nutrition labels, measuring and food systems; and plant growth, such as low carbon food choices and managing resources.
The engagement has worked, as Peggy Policastro, NJHKI culinary literacy and nutrition director notes, “I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of participation we are seeing in class. When we ask questions, the chat is filled with ideas or children raise their hands to unmute themselves and speak.”
Another benefit of the online format is for the kids to show their accomplishments from home. “Participants can actually bring us into their gardens and show us new seedlings just beginning to break through the dirt or the beginnings of a compost,” Policastro said. “At the end of class the other day we had participants stick around to take us on a tour of their gardens—which is something that could never happen during in-person learning.”
As the summer sessions concluded, the pilot project will provide research results to serve as a model program.
“I think this program’s value extends beyond its content on food literacy and will contribute to the needed and growing body of literature regarding best practices in virtual instruction,” Erin Comollo, NJHKI program development administrator, said. “It is important to ensure that the virtual instructional approaches that so many educators are pivoting toward remain engaging and encourage actual life experiences despite being on-screen.”
While this event is now concluded, interested readers and parents can join the NJHKI mailing list at https://njhki.rutgers.edu/newsletter/ and follow them on their social media pages.
Interested in STEM and innovation? Today, from 10 am to 4 pm, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County is hosting the second day of a 2-day virtual Maker Fair, along with the Robbinsville Innovation 4-H Club. The fair started yesterday and concludes today, Sunday, Aug. 30.
There will be several opportunities to get involved and to see the innovative projects created by the 4-H club members over the past year. The youth have invented a variety of products that address several societal challenges related to health and wellness, environmental sustainability, food production, and more.
As a bonus, there will be 4-H members from innovation clubs in Ashland, Massachusetts and Ashburn, Virginia also participating in the weekend Maker Fair. Over the past few years, the Mercer County Innovation 4-H Club has established these new 4-H clubs in Massachusetts and Virginia as well as a connection with students at Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University (JNTU) in Hyderabad, India. A group of more experienced 4-H members has been providing regular virtual training in a variety of STEM topics to youth of these other groups – and they will be presenting their projects as well.
Anyone interested in attending should contact the club at [email protected] It should be fun and inspiring! The club will provide details for how you can get involved. More information should be available on the club’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/innovation4Hclub.
Nicholas Polanin is associate professor, agricultural agent II, Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station Cooperative Extension of Somerset County. Email him at [email protected]
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