Teaching Parents to Reach Students with Nutrition Education

by School 2, Paterson, NJ

“Do you want to help fight obesity? Come out and support our efforts!” This is the frequent rallying call of health and physical education teacher Quana Torres who has taken the lead on getting her students and staff moving more. “I want to get people inspired and keep them moving towards the effort of change,” said Torres.

Since joining the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, Torres recruited the principal, nurse, cafeteria manager and parent liaison to serve as the school wellness council and they quickly completed the school inventory and action plan to help guide their efforts. The team identified a need for nutrition education and decided to start by engaging the parents. Torres attended a Healthy Schools Program workshop, where she learned about nutrition education offered through Rutgers Cooperative Extension’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed). She returned to school to share the information with her team.

Parent liaison Gale Ellerbee, who has been working with the families of School 2 for four years, helped with outreach to parents. “We wanted to do something to help the parents help the children,” she said. “Children don’t cook for themselves, they don’t buy groceries. They eat what their parents feed them. If you don’t teach the parents, they can’t teach the students.”

Johanny Casillas, Rutgers Community Assistant, teaches nutrition education to parents through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) model. Casillas taught the classes at School 2 in both English and Spanish so the lessons were accessible to the mostly Spanish- speaking population of the community. Torres scheduled the classes for the morning since many parents are already at the school to drop their children off at that time. To ensure that families knew when the meetings were held, Assistant Principal Edward Cisneros communicated with the parents by recording and sent out a weekly reminder message that called all parents the day before the class.

Each of the six-week sessions focuses on a different nutrition topic. The series started with parents deciding as a group the topics they wanted addressed to meet their needs and interests. Each participant completed a dietary recall and behavioral checklist, which is used to guide the lessons, and also gauge behavior changes and lessons learned from the beginning of the course to the end. Parents learned about the MyPyramid dietary recommendations, how to read nutrition labels, and how to reduce sodium intake by cooking without salt. The interactive lessons included playing games with the new information such as a fruit and vegetable BINGO, and making a salt-free seasoning for chicken that they could take home to cook with.

At the end of the six weeks, parents received a certificate of completion. Principal Felisa Van Liew attended the awards ceremony and expressed her support for the parents’ efforts to make healthy changes.

“We wanted to start by drawing the parents in,” Torres said. “Now we can bring it to the students.” Torres has incorporated information and activities she learned in the parent meetings into her classes for students. She teaches nutrition to sixth through eighth graders each year. “This connected the pieces for me, and showed me what I can target with my own kids.” Next, she plans to invite Rutgers into her classes through their SNAP-Ed student program.

Now the parents are spreading the word about healthy eating. They hope to tell other parents about the nutrition class, and form an even larger group for next year. They are also continuing their efforts at home. They discussed not only changing their own eating habits, but modifying their cooking to prevent high cholesterol and high blood pressure in their children. They are talking to their kids about eating healthy snacks and drinking less juice and sugary beverages. They taught their kids to read nutrition labels. As Ellerbee summarized, “we will do our best to live a healthier life and to eat healthier.”

Torres has invited the parents to join the school wellness council and wants them to be an active part of the healthy changes at the school. “While the parents are still inspired, we are going to bring them into our work with the Healthy Schools Program.”