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NMSU pilots school-based nutrition program

New Mexico

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

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.

All 423 students, kindergarten through sixth grade, participated 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.

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.

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.

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