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NMSU's ICAN empowers Mescalero children, elders to make healthy choices

What does a rousing rendition of the Blues Brothers' "Soul Man," have to do with strawberry and banana smoothies, "Old McDonald Had a Farm," and hand washing? Plenty, if you are participating in nutrition classes offered through New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.



April Cray Rhodes, Extension agent for the Otero County Cooperative Extension Service, prepares healthy strawberry and banana smoothies for children in Carizzo. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

April Cray Rhodes, an Extension nutrition educator for Otero County spent this spring teaching a series of Kids ICAN (Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition) classes at the Mescalero Apache Tribe, which included Head Start sites in Mescalero and Carrizo.

Through the course of the series, the children learned how to make trail mix, smoothies and graham cracker strawberry pizza. They enjoyed peach slice tasting, and got some exercise, dancing and singing.

Sounds like fun and games - and it is - but the children were also learning important lessons about staying healthy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Team Nutrition curriculum was used for this program.

"What I am doing is planting the seed to get them started on being a smart consumer and making good choices, Cray Rhodes said. "The kids are learning about the ingredients in different foods so they can even teach their family members."

The kids might not remember all the nutritional value in, say, a smoothie, but they will remember that fruit smoothies are good - and good for them - and the calcium in the sweet treat will help them grow strong teeth and bones. The same goes for fresh fruit and vegetables that are rich in vitamins and are natural fast foods that are colorful and fun. Cray Rhodes said she wants these healthy tidbits to stay with the children as they grow into adulthood so they can have the tools to continue making healthy choices and pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

"You have the young and you have the elders," Cray Rhodes said. "The elders are somewhat passing the torch and teaching the younger ones."

The nutrition educator also teaches ICAN to the adults and elders in Mescalero. Surprisingly, the nutritional needs of an elder in the tribe is parallel to that of a preschooler. While young children need the vitamins and minerals in various foods to help them grow strong bones and muscle, adults need the same, though in different amounts, to sustain their bodies and prevent ailments, such as osteoporosis.

"What I would really like to see for them - especially adults - is for them to become a more powerful consumer so that they can empower themselves so when they do read food labels, they know what they are looking for," Cray Rhodes said.

Cray Rhodes also taught Eat Smart Play Hard and works with adults and elders in the Mescalero Recovery Program and Elder Program on the reservation. She teaches these and ICAN and Kids ICAN to adults and children at schools and organizations throughout Otero County.

"I enjoy doing what I do," said Cray Rhodes. "I love teaching out in the communities. Even though I am there teaching, I always learn something new from every group that I go to. I feel like I'm the one who gets to reap all the great benefits from meeting others."

For more information about the services offered through the Otero County Cooperative Extension Service, call 575-437-0231.