A Weighty Subject

For more information on nutrition, visit the following Web sites.

Family Nutrition Program,
http://msucares.com/health/fnp/
Government nutrition information, http://www.nutrition.gov
The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/
Or, call your local MSU Extension Service office

By Mack Spencer

Daily Journal

It might not be the heaviest subject in school, but it might keep its learners from being their heaviest.

Nutrition classes are popping up in districts across North Mississippi, in response to national studies that show that children today are growing up fatter than the children of the last generation.

A number of districts are teaming up with the Mississippi State University Extension Service to offer the Family Nutrition Program curriculum. Other districts have devised their own nutrition programs.

Nutrition by Extension

The Family Nutrition Program in Mississippi is funded by the federal government to teach nutrition education to food stamp recipients, those eligible for food stamps and students in schools where half or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

State schools and agencies provide a match to the federal dollars with in-kind contributions, such as the salaries of the nutrition teachers.

The curricula for the various grade levels are drawn from “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid. Mississippi State trains the teachers who will use the nutrition curricula.

The program is designed to fit with the Mississippi Curriculum Frameworks' requirements in personal and consumer health, disease prevention and control, human growth and development and physical education.

“I believe this program has a good impact in the schools,” said Judith Ward, area coordinator for 10 Northeast Mississippi counties. “We have curricula for K-12, but we are trying to concentrate on the lower grades.”

Ward said a number of districts in the area – Benton County, Itawamba County, Marshall County, Holly Springs, Pontotoc City, Pontotoc County, South Tippah and Union County – are taking part in the program.

Statewide, she said, 28 districts have teachers from the program, with nine more teachers to be hired soon for additional districts.

“Our county agent, Tim Needham, mentioned the program to me,” said Larry Robbins, superintendent of South Tippah Schools. “Starting with children at an early age is a good way to start good lifelong eating habits.”

The Extension Service's grant funds pay for one teacher per district, so South Tippah's teacher travels among Ripley, Blue Mountain and Pine Grove. The teacher in Calhoun County, which is grouped with other counties to the south, must travel among Bruce, Calhoun City and Vardaman.

“Our nutrition classes are part of the students' PE time,” said Calhoun Superintendent Beth Hardin. “We didn't want to take away from the other academic subjects, and we feel that this fits in with physical education.

“Anything that improves a child's health improves his ability to learn,” she said. “For one thing, they have fewer absences; but, I've always been told, and I believe, that a mind functions better in a healthy body. We're primarily working with younger children who, if they learn better eating habits, will have better health over their lifetimes.”

Hardin said having the Extension Service offer the nutrition classes has advantages for the district and the students.

“The state curriculum does contain some nutrition information. It's not left out, but this program is able to give it more emphasis,” Hardin said. “Children get excited when they see a new person come in to class, so I think they'll get a lot from the Extension Service doing it. They have some other materials we might not have had access to, and it's presented in a different way.”

Do-it-yourself Nutrition

The Nettleton School District created its own nutrition curriculum with the help of grant funds. Curriculum Coordinator Lewis Rowles said the district's teachers worked together to create a curriculum for the fourth through sixth grades.

“There are a lot of hands-on activities and songs,” Rowles said. “Not everything is pen and paper. The children are more likely to remember songs, and a lot of them are really cute.”

Nettleton's curriculum is divided into six sections, so that a section can be emphasized each six-weeks grading period. Sections include “I Am What I Eat,” “The Food Guide Pyramid,” “Food Safety,” “Sugar or Salt,” “Fit or Fat” and “Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle.”

Rather than having a separate nutrition class, the nutrition information is infused in the regular subjects.

“We didn't want this to be like an artificial effort,” Rowles said. “We wanted this to be part of what we were already doing, in lessons on following directions or counting.”

The district involves parents in the effort by having special nights with information or heart-healthy foods available, and by sending home activities for students and parents to complete.