Marathon & Lincoln County Students Increase Their Fruit & Vegetable Consumption
Situation: The need for nutrition and fitness programming for Marathon County youth was determined as a result of a Wausau School District research study published in 2004, known as “The School Project. 715 students from grades 2, 5, 8, and 11 participated in the study by filling out a diet inventory, reporting on their physical activity, being measured at waist and hips, and having their blood drawn to check for cholesterol and insulin levels. The study results found that Marathon County kids were almost three times more likely to be obese than kids nationally. Other findings included that by 11th grade, 40% of those surveyed had a higher than normal blood pressure; abnormal cholesterol levels showed up in close to 40% of the kids; and about 25% had a pre-diabetic state known as insulin-resistance which rose to 50% among overweight students. This local study served as a wakeup call to the Wausau School District on the need to take steps to overcome childhood obesity. Specific nutrient dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which have a higher nutritive value relative to their energy content, have been found to be protective against childhood obesity. According to the 2009 State Indicator Report on the CDC website, only 13.7% of Wisconsin children ages 6-11 ate two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day. Another study found that 43% of the few vegetables that children are eating are white potatoes. Although there has been no similar local study done of Lincoln County youth, in 2005, over 600 Lincoln County residents were surveyed to determine what health issues most affected the people of Lincoln County based on the State of Wisconsin Health Priorities and National Health objectives. Residents surveyed felt that the number one health issue in the county was the problem of overweight, physical inactivity and poor nutrition. Based on the survey results and local and state health data, three priorities were chosen as the focus of the plan and primary goals were set. One of these three goals is that “Lincoln County children, youth, adults and older adults will adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Response: WNEP educators taught 236 kindergarten students, 335 second grade students, and 217 fourth grade students at six low-income schools in Marathon County and at 5 low-income classrooms at Washington Elementary in Lincoln County about the importance of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. In kindergarten, students were read the books, “Eating the Alphabet and I Will Never, Not Ever Eat a Tomato” and then tasted two fruits and two vegetables in two separate lessons. In second grade, the children were read the book “Oliver’s Vegetables” and then sampled vegetables highlighted in the book. In fourth grade, students receive four lessons highlighting fruits and vegetables that include skits, books, and games and receive samples of jicama, raw sweet potato, Clementine and pumpkin. Another 283 low-income middle school students at a school-wide health fair played a fruit and vegetable jeopardy game and were given samples of jicama and raw sweet potato.
Results: One hundred twenty parents of kindergarten and fourth grade students receiving lessons focusing on the importance of eating a variety fruit and vegetables every day that also included taste testing activities were surveyed about changes in their children’s behavior in regards to eating fruits and vegetables at home. Sixty-eight percent (81) reported that their child was more willing to taste new foods, 42% (50) reported that their child asked them to buy a fruit or vegetable, 55% (66) reported that their child had been eating more fruit, and 48% (57) reported that their child had been eating more vegetables. A few weeks after the kindergarten lessons, one of our cooperating teachers couldn’t wait to report back to us that at her spring parent teacher conferences, one of her parents commented,” I am so impressed that you have been teaching the kids to try new fruits and vegetables in class. My daughter couldn’t wait to tell me what she had tried. She was so proud of herself”. Similar positive results were observed at the middle school health fair. The jicama samples were so popular that as students were lining up to go back to their classrooms at the end of the fair, four 8th grade boys came running back to our booth to grab handfuls of jicama, clearing us out of all that we had left. All four boys said that jicama was new to them, but that they definitely planned to ask their moms to buy some. In a post event evaluation, organizers commented about how popular the jicama samples were and that none of them had ever heard of it before. They added that they planned to use it themselves at future events.
Evidence: Teachers were asked to send home the parent surveys one month after the last fruit and vegetable lesson was conducted in their classroom. Parents of kindergarten and 4th grade students were chosen because parents of 2nd grade students had already been asked to fill out the hand washing survey. No incentives were given for returning the survey which would have helped the response rate. Despite this fact, 120 surveys (45%) of 265 surveys sent home were returned. The date of data collection varied, depending on the original date of the lesson.
The programming effort that has resulted in the most rewarding and successful results in Marathon County continues to be our school program, “Food, Fun and Fitness.” This program is successful because it is continually fine-tuned to meet the needs of the participating students, the cooperating teachers, and also our own nutrition staff. This program will continue because the need for it does not go away. As long as childhood obesity remains an issue locally, there will be a need for high quality nutrition education that truly engages the learner. However, we do find ourselves in need of different choices for assessing the work we do with this audience than the current evaluation choices from the Youth Curriculum Sourcebook. In Lincoln County, we have been very successful with all of our programs efforts. Lincoln County nutrition educator, Debbi Warren, has worked very hard to establish working relationships with adult programming groups that we haven’t traditionally worked with a lot in Marathon County, such as the domestic abuse center and a mental health group. Her multi-session group lessons with these groups have been very well-received and will continue.
The least rewarding programming effort has been the learn-while-you-wait lessons with WIC and at the food pantry in Lincoln County. Because our WNEP educators have been teaching at the same WIC site over a number of years, they have been able to establish a rapport with the WIC clientele, which makes the experience more rewarding as clients become more comfortable opening up to them, but they still feel the time given them to teach is often not enough to promote significant impact. The advantage to collaborating with WIC is that it is the one program that gets us out to sites throughout the two counties, an important point when reporting to Extension Education Committees. The disadvantage is that sometimes you can spend all day at a distant county site and speak to less than a dozen people with a very short lesson. Consequently, we made the determination a few years ago to cut out all but two of the busiest WIC satellite sites in Marathon County. The five remaining sites in the two counties are the ones that are the most successful. We will continue to program at these sites in the future. A similar problem occurs at the Lincoln County Food Pantry. On any given day, only a few clients come through the pantry and they do not wait long. Although pantry workers are very receptive to our providing education, we have yet to determine a cost and time effective way of providing it and have currently put providing education at the pantry on hold.
There is real concern that Lincoln County might choose to drop their support of the Family Living Agent position that is currently vacant, in an effort to cut costs. If that should happen, then WNEP would also be cut in Lincoln County. Hopefully, we will know the county’s intention in regard to this position within the next few months.
Tammy Hansen, Family Nutrition Program Coordinator