The University of Maryland Food and Supplemental Nutrition Education Program allows us to work with their educators throughout various locations in Maryland. I’ve now completed two weeks with this community nutrition program, and have never worked with the same age group twice. Teaching nutrition lessons to so many different age groups has led to a myriad of experiences with various teaching styles and energy levels!
In addition to varying energy levels, the participants’ ability to grasp your food and nutrition focused lessons differs. Some young children won’t retain more than the name of one new vegetable. Some adults refuse to taste new produce, or become frustrated and give up on a lesson involving reading nutrition labels. Success in community nutrition is measured on a small scale and increases significantly with repetition. It was difficult for me to see this in my brief experience, but I know that by the fourth or fifth lesson the children begin to categorize fruits and veggies on their own, and the adults feel more comfortable when confronted with nutrition labels.
One experience that taught me about measuring success was a “Read for Health” lesson with a play group. On this particular day, the children that showed up for play group were aged six months through two and a half years old. We had planned to teach the children about the different ways plants grow using the book Up, Down, and All Around. Suddenly our goals changed; our new plan involved allowing the children to experience new foods during the planned snack time and teaching the parents something new about how their children can experience new and healthy foods.
These goals may seem small, but they can also have a huge impact on the future of these families. Young children will typically try new foods when they’re offered. It’s important for a parent to see this for themselves and learn about how and why to diversify their child’s diet. Community nutritionists are confronted daily with a precious opportunity to influence diets and ultimately prevent chronic disease in low income populations through early nutrition education. It can be difficult to see this when looking at just one day, but small goals and simple changes add up and save lives.