WCU students hope the way to children’s minds is through their stomachs

Students from Western Carolina University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Program have been working with faculty and staff at Cullowhee Valley School to educate elementary students on the connection between local food and healthy eating.

Olivia Jacobs, a senior in the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at WCU, is working with Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to pioneer the farm-to-school program at Cullowhee Valley School. Jacobs works eight to ten hours each week teaching students at CVS about healthy, local foods.

` Four classes at CVS maintain a garden in a plot of land adjacent to the school. From beets to Swiss chard, CVS students help plant, water and harvest a variety of produce throughout the year. In addition to the food education, teachers can use the farm-to-school initiative and the garden to teach any subject, said Littman. Teachers at CVS have used the garden as a tool to educate in a variety of ways. A rain gauge helps students learn about science and math while they observe and record the data each day. Other classes have gone into the garden to learn language arts and to write poetry.

Students also get to enjoy the food that they are learning about. On Wednesdays, Jacobs teams up with Nicole Austin, a WCU nutrition and dietetics graduate student, to provide the students with a taste test of locally available foods. “The kids really enjoy trying new foods. They don’t always like them, but they are still excited about trying them,” said Austin. A surprising favorite among the kids was raw cabbage from a local farm; the apple coleslaw, however, was not as well received, Austin said. Jacobs, Littman, and Austin all help plan the taste tests and decide on recipes each week.

Littman and Jacobs also teach a lesson on Fridays to three classes (kindergarten through second grade) and then use local vegetables, occasionally harvested from the students’ own garden, to cook in the classrooms. During a recent lesson on harvesting, Littman and Jacobs helped the students harvest Swiss chard from their garden, cut fresh sweet peppers and local tomatoes from Shelton Family Farms in Whittier and put them into quesadillas.

“The most rewarding part about this is that the children remember what they have learned and they are still excited about it,” says Jacobs, who in addition to being an intern for ASAP is a student- athlete and takes a full course load at WCU.

Nicole Austin, a graduate student in WCU’s Nutrition and Dietetics Program, hands elementary students a bite of locally grown foods during a ‘taste test’ at Cullowhee Valley School. Austin and other WCU students have been working to educate students about healthy, locally grown foods.

In order to gain a few extra hands, Jacobs organizes two to three volunteers, usually from the WCU Nutrition and Dietetics Program, to help each day.

“The farm-to-school program is a great tool to teach kids about the connection between healthy eating and local food,” said April Tallant, assistant professor in the Nutrition and Dietetics program at WCU. “Our diets are shaped around exposure, and by exposing the children to healthy, local foods early on, they are more likely to adopt healthy diet preferences in the future.” In addition, the program helps WCU nutrition students gain a civic-minded perspective, said Tallant.

Both Tallant and Littman agree that local food in the classroom not only educates students, but it also gives local farmers a new source of income, especially in rural areas where they may have limited access to markets.

The farm-to-school program is sponsored by ASAP, which received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund the program.

For more information about ASAP and the Farm-to-School program, or to volunteer to help, contact Littman by email at anna@asapconnections.org. To find out more about the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at WCU, contact Wayne Billon, program director, by email at billon@email.wcu.edu or by telephone at 828-227-3528.