By Kerri Qunell
“Carrots help your eyes, and apples help your teeth,” says eight-year-old Julissa, a participant in the Capital Area Food Bank’s (CAFB) “Power of CHOICE” class at Hillcrest Elementary. The class is offered as part of CAFB’s CHOICES nutrition education program and partially funded by the USDA’s food stamp program. Young participants learn basic nutrition, how to make healthy eating and fitness choices and how to make healthy snacks.
“If you had a choice to eat potato chips or green beans, what would you choose?” asks the CAFB class facilitator. “Green beans!” the students yell in unison—an encouraging response, since a recent study by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that about one in every three Texas children is medically obese.
“Access is definitely an issue,” says Monica Escobar, CAFB’s nutrition education manager.
Inexpensive, low-nutrition snacks like animal-shaped cookies and boxes of neon-colored “juice” are marketed to children and readily available at convenience stores where a lot of low-income families are forced to shop for groceries. “Many low-income families don’t have transportation, so the grocery store is not an option,” Escobar continues. “They shop at convenience stores and fresh, healthy foods aren’t available.”
Power of CHOICE class participants are taught about the USDA food pyramid—including the importance of the different food groups—how to read a nutrition label and the benefits of a low-sugar, low-fat diet. “Children are impressionable, so it’s important we get this information to them early,” Escobar says.
In one lesson, each student is given an empty snack wrapper and asked to figure out how many grams of fat and sugar the snack contains by reading the nutrition label. They’re then given a tub of solid fat and a bag of sugar and instructed to scoop out the appropriate amounts of fat and sugar into individual plastic bags. After seeing exactly what the snack contains, and squishing the thick, pasty grit between their fingers, the students join together in a chorus of “Ewwwww!”
The children share what they learn with their parents, and in many cases, it influences purchasing decisions. “My parents started buying celery and a lot of bananas, and they stopped buying sodas,” says nine-year-old Noemi. “After I eat a healthy snack, I feel energized.”