The WSU Extension Food $ense nutrition education program partners with schools and community agencies to teach youth and adults with limited incomes skills and behaviors to eat healthfully and maximize the value of their food dollars and food assistance benefits. Food $ense complements federal food assistance programs by providing experiential education that builds food shopping, preparation and cooking skills people need to provide themselves and their families with nutritious, low-cost and safe food.
WSU Extension has contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program, USDA-Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, and more than 600 community agencies to conduct Food $ense nutrition education since 1991.
Food $ense has helped kids since 2002, with a team of 18 Food $ense educators serving 43 different schools in seven school districts in Spokane County. The educators generally teach a series of six one-hour classes in primary and secondary schools.
Some of the educators, such as Mike Lynch, a nutrition educator at Spokane’s Bancroft School, an alternative school for grades 4-12, integrate games such as Jeopardy, ring toss and crosswords into their curriculums to teach nutritional facts. Lynch even has students apply their knowledge by making simple, accessible and healthful dishes and snacks.
Camille Sullivan, senior coordinator of Food $ense Spokane County Extension, said though it is difficult to measure behavior change, especially in youth, pre- and post-class tests show an increased knowledge of the USDA food pyramid categories and its serving sizes.
Furthermore, in May, 80 percent of youth in grades 1-3 from Madison Elementary who had never consumed fresh green salad before attending Food $ense classes reported they would try green salad again. After classes, teachers of grades K-4 reported that up to 95 percent of their students tried or finished their fruits and vegetables each day. And 90 percent of teachers reported students did so because they understood the food’s nutritional value.
Sullivan said Food $ense also helps adults through partnerships with criminal justice centers, food banks, food stamp offices, YMCA and other community service agencies in Spokane County. They offer nutrition classes, food preparation activities and recipes to encourage adults with limited income to make healthier lifestyle choices.
Sullivan said that while the program provides youths with guidelines for behaviors – increase consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, low-fat dairy as well as increase the amount of daily physical activity – it is also important to educate adults how to cook healthy meals on a tight budget to steer them away from processed food and fast food.
Because the people Food $ense works with have limited incomes, money is a factor in their food selection decisions, Sullivan said.
“Research shows children can influence the purchase behavior of their parent,” she said, “but the parent ultimately does the shopping, makes the food, makes the choices. Unfortunately, it is much cheaper to go to the local convenience store and buy a hot dog and bag of chips than it is to go to the grocery store and buy fresh ingredients for a salad. …Our goal is to open up a whole new world of eating and behaving.”
Since 2004, Food $ense has partnered with Spokane’s Second Harvest, a food distribution agency serving 26 counties in eastern Washington and northern Idaho through its 275 food banks, soup kitchens and senior meal programs. An estimated 60-70 percent of Second Harvest’s donated food is perishable.
Rod Wieber, chief resource officer of Second Harvest, said the program’s Rachel Ray-like cooking demonstrations, recipe ideas and tips to extend food’s shelf-life reached nearly 7,000 participants through 261 classes at neighborhood food banks last year.
For example, a Food $ense educator would conduct a class on how to cook a simple chicken casserole. Then he or she would discuss the meal’s nutritional value as well as how to use the rest of the chicken carcass to make low-cost chicken noodle soup.
Wieber said the classes were so popular that some locations had to conduct several per day to accommodate the large number of participants.
“This program has garnered a lot of attention at food banks where classes are offered,” Wieber said. “People who go continue to go, and they tell their friends about it.”
Wieber said the partnership especially has helped people struggling with job loss and limited savings in the current economy. As the number of people relying on food banks continues to grow, so should the services food banks provide, and that is what Food $ense is helping to do, he said.
Camille Sullivan, Extension Coordinator –Spokane, 509-477-2631, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Robinson or Maria Ortega, WSU News Service, 509-335-7209, email@example.com