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NMSU Extension teaches nutrition program to entire Chaparral Elementary student body

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Every student at Chaparral Elementary School in Albuquerque proudly received a certificate from the kIdsCAN program this year. They are among the 2,000 students in Albuquerque and 15,200 students across the state this year who have completed the nutrition program from New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service nutrition educators.

Girl looking at MyPyramid chart
An elementary school student looks at the USDA dietary guideline MyPyramid while NMSU Extension nutrition educators talk about the foods in each category and the importance of healthy eating habits. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

"Usually only one or two teachers in a school will invite us to teach the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition (ICAN) program in their classrooms," said Donna Sauter, NMSU Extension home economist and Bernalillo County ICAN coordinator. "It was a real treat for the teachers and administration at Chaparral Elementary to see the value of teaching this program to all of the 731 students."

The school's principal was pleased with the program and has invited the nutrition educators back next school year to again teach the program to the entire student body.

The kIdsCAN program is the youth component of the ICAN program, which provides hands-on, needs-based education in the areas of healthy food choices, food preparation, food safety and food resource management to people with limited-incomes and resources. The youth curriculum is designed to meet educational benchmarks set by the New Mexico Public Education Department.

During four one-hour classes, the children learn about the USDA dietary guidelines MyPyramid and Choose MyPlate, the importance of hand-washing, how to read the nutritional fact chart on food labels, the importance of eating breakfast, and how to prepare healthy snacks.

"The classes are taught primarily by paraprofessional educators, who are hired from the communities served by the program," Sauter said of the 11 nutrition educators working in Bernalillo County. "These educators have similar backgrounds to program participants and thus serve as peer role models."

Being able to work with the community is the driving force for the nutrition educator.

"I was a single mother for quite a few years," said Geraldine Herrera, one of the nutrition educators working with the Chaparral Elementary students. "I didn't know about any of these programs that I work with now that I'm with the Cooperative Extension Service. People with limited means and resources don't know of all these resources and beneficial programs that are out there, and are free."

Mary Henderson, who team-teaches with Herrera at Chaparral Elementary, has been an NMSU Extension nutrition educator for 21 years.

"I enjoy working with the adults in the ICAN program, but my passion is working with the children," Henderson said. "They are so excited about our coming to their class. They really are interested in what we have to tell them."

The students don't just learn about hand-washing, but see the affects of 20 seconds of washing with soap when they put their hands under a black light in the Glo-Germ. Under the black light, traces of the talcum powder "germs" glow white to show what was not removed when the students washed their hands.

"This activity really reinforces the importance of washing their hands," Henderson said. "We teach them to sing the ABC song while washing to be sure they spend enough time at the task."

The students learn about the nutritional value of different foods and how much of each food group - fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy - they should eat each day.

"We have them write or draw their favorite foods from each of the food groups," Henderson said. "A lot of children haven't eaten a wide variety of fruit or vegetables, so we like to introduce them to different choices."

The final week of the class, the students learn the importance of breakfast and healthy snacks.

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it gives you energy," Henderson said. "They love to hear about how they wake up in the morning, but their brain is still asleep until they eat breakfast where they get the necessary nutrients to give them energy to help them learn at school."

Each week the class concludes with a healthy snack which the students can make with their family at home.

"They don't really know how sugar affects them," Herrera said. "From our teaching they become more conscious about the choices they are making. They realize making healthier choices will help them grow up strong and stay healthy."

Besides presenting kIdsCAN in schools, the nutrition educators teach the classes at community centers and any organization that has contact with families with low-incomes. Adult ICAN participants attend a series of four to 12 classes that are tailored to participants' needs and focus on hands-on learning. Statewide, 2,300 adults receive the training annually, including 1,000 in Bernalillo County.

ICAN is the umbrella name used in New Mexico to refer to both the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program. The New Mexico Human Services Department currently provides the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program to food stamp participants throughout the state through a joint powers agreement with the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service.