Students at Clayton Ridge High School have formed a Food & Fitness group to help improve the health and wellness of their school and the community at large. Members of the small group will gain knowledge and skills in a variety of areas related to good nutrition, local food systems, and active living, plus processes involved in policy advocacy – and then will communicate their goals and aspirations as they educate fellow students, younger students, school staff, and community members about good nutrition, local food systems, and active living.
At their first meeting in November, group members expressed interest in learning to cook healthy foods. So at last week’s meeting, Foodcorps volunteer Katrina Underwood led students in preparing sweet potato fries. “Sweet potatoes are less starchy and more nutricious than regular potatoes,” Underwood told students. “And we’re going to bake them, which is healthier than frying them.” Students also practiced safely using kitchen knives.
The Clayton Ridge Food & Fitness Initiative (FFI) brainstormed ideas for improving the wellness of fellow students, and came up with priorities like decreasing food waste, providing a salad bar in the cafeteria, and simply adding more vegetables to sides like rice at lunch. Students in attendance were Alyssa Hefel, Ethan Billmeyer, Kalkidan Hefel, Jaderial Staebler, Brianna Finnegan, Alexis Schramel, Dylan Gladwin, Trevor Heying, and Skyler Schrodt. Two representatives from the group will attend Regional Youth Leadership Team training in Decorah on Thursday, Dec. 11, and will return with new experiences and new ideas for improving school wellness.
The Regional Youth Leadership Team (RYLT) is made up of students from each of the participating schools in the six-county region of Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek. Within the region, 14 schools and nearly 200 students participate in FFI. RYLT meets three to four times a school year to participate in leadership trainings and team building activities, and to take these lessons back to their youth teams to better prepare them for the projects that lie ahead.
This month’s RYLT training features a grocery store tour with tips for smart shopping, a cooking challenge, and a conversation led by Allison Lansman of the National 4-H Healthy Living Council. There will also be time for physical activity. Students will be encouraged to network with students from other schools.
Each FFI team is based in the Iowa 4-H program, led by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. During the training, youth leaders from the area come together with their school youth coaches and 4-H County Youth Coordinators to form a collaboration between schools and communities through 4-H.
“The efforts of these youth-led Food & Fitness teams encompasses outreach in their schools related to healthy food choices, educating youth about local foods, and encouraging active living with the purpose of reducing the risk of childhood obesity and building awareness of the importance of healthy lifestyles,” said Laura Leichty, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Region 4 Youth & Nutrition Coordinator.
Leichty surveyed students who attended RYLT meetings during the 2013-14 school year. “Outcomes from this survey showed these youth leaders felt they had benefited from this experience by learning important life and job skills as they became more confident in public speaking, more thoughtful working in teams, and more humble by helping their community,” she summarized. “The topic that seemed to resonate the most was their change in eating behavior. Sixty-three percent of the students felt they learned a lot more about healthy food habits and saw themselves make healthier changes in their lifestyle choices, with the hope to model that behavior for their family and friends.”
Recent projects completed by FFI groups in our region include Cafeteria Coaches, during which student leaders are present in elementary school cafeterias to serve as healthy role models, encouraging younger students to try new foods and eat nutritious school meals. Their efforts have helped improve consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, while working with school nutrition staff to introduce new recipes and foods on school menus and offer samples of new items, including local foods.
Cross-age teaching is another project that has been embraced by five area high schools, which are actively engaging elementary age youth with classroom lessons concerning local foods and their nutritious attributes. Students form teaching groups, and together they organize lesson plans and present a new lesson to the same classrooms monthly.
After participating in Food & Fitness for at least one school year, students reported a positive change in their behavior related to lifestyle choices, leadership skills, improved teamwork and communication, and confidence in public speaking.
Students also reported positive learning experiences from the various projects, especially valuing Food & Fitness as a part of their middle or high school experience. The skills FFI students are learning may prepare them for their future careers, and simultaneously improve their perceptions of healthy lifestyles – making them role models for their families and communities.
By Molly Moser, Guttenberg Press, 12/10/14.