Colorado State University Grant Makes Health Education, Science and Other Classes Fun for Fourth Graders

When black bean tostadas or potato pancakes with applesauce are class projects, students not only get to eat their school lesson, they learn about history and culture, science, math, social studies and language arts, and develop healthier habits to help avoid becoming obese.

That’s the innovative idea behind a curriculum adapted by Colorado State University researchers. The program will integrate hands-on nutrition lessons into typical fourth grade class topics, as well as into their homes.

“Many programs attempt to prevent obesity and promote health in schools, but they often fail because they don’t move students beyond simply gaining knowledge, to action,” said Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. They also don’t target the many food exposures children experience, such as school cafeteria meals and food served at home.”

Cunningham-Sabo received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the program, called Cooking with Kids 2.0: Plus Parents and Play.

“By integrating hands-on cooking experience and nutrition education into the classroom, we hope to enhance academic learning and improve children’s health behaviors,” said Cunningham-Sabo. “By targeting nutrition throughout the child’s day, increasing activity levels and engaging children’s families, we hope to reach our main goal of preventing obesity while also supporting academics.”

The innovative program includes two-hour cooking classes with recipes that have been modified to be easily prepared by students, and one-hour fruit and vegetable tasting lessons to expose students to several varieties of fruits and vegetables while learning about their cultural, geographical and historical significance. The students discuss the culture and history of international dishes they prepare or fruits and veggies they taste, and then share the meal as a class while they discuss what they learned.

The bonus for teachers? The lessons are standards-based and teach learning objectives in math, science, social studies and language arts.

The program, originally developed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but adapted by CSU researchers, also builds upon Cunningham-Sabo’s research with the original Cooking with Kids curriculum, which has been shown to improve fourth grader’s cooking attitudes and skills and preferences for fruits and veggies. New components integrate active recess play and recreation breaks into the school day to increase student’s activity levels, while also working with school cafeterias to improve students’ choices at lunch, and families to encourage healthy choices and activity at home.

After each cooking class, a letter explaining the activity and a recipe will be sent home to parents. The communication also will include information about an online course with nutritional lessons and a survey about their current household habits.

With assistance from CSU graduate students, schools also will host family nights where fourth graders guide their families through cooking and fun physical activities. Parents also will be encouraged to volunteer in their child’s classroom when Cooking with Kids activities are being taught.

School cafeterias will feature Cooking with Kid-inspired meals to reinforce the classroom experience, highlight more healthful menu items with signs and verbally encourage students to try healthful options.

The program will begin in eight schools — four from Poudre and four from Thompson School Districts — over the next three years. Subsequent activities of this five-year project include adapting the program for an after-school setting, and taking it to three other school districts.

Collaborators on the project include other CSU faculty within the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, the School of Education, the Department of Health and Exercise Science, all within the College of Applied Human Sciences. In addition, other collaborators include CSU’s College of Business; the Coalition of Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity, or CanDo; Healthy Kids Club; Poudre and Thompson School Districts; Pennsylvania State University; and Cooking with Kids Inc.

In recent years, Colorado’s national ranking for childhood obesity rates dramatically worsened, falling from third place (as healthy) to 23rd. Childhood obesity factors include diet, lack of activity and environmental influences, such as fewer family meals at home, and media advertisements of unhealthful foods. Research shows that children consume a third to almost half of their daily calories at school, yet nutrition education in elementary schools accounts for a fraction of classroom discussion. By integrating nutritional education into existing classroom topics, the number of hours dedicated to learning healthful habits increases as well as supports standardized testing material.