Student Dietetics Association teams up with Common Threads to teach children about nutrition

An estimated one third of all children in the United States are overweight or obese. While the obesity rate is possibly stabilizing, it is still alarmingly high, with more than 17 percent of children considered clinically obese. 

One way to help combat this issue is through nutrition education. Unfortunately, many individuals and families do not receive formal or informal nutritional guidance.

“We know that healthy, balanced meals and snacks are the key to weight control. Making healthy choices can seem overwhelming or even confusing for many families on the go but with the right advice, it can be made simpler. Small modifications at each meal can come together to make a big difference and that is something that we hope to teach,” said Tania Rivera, assistant clinical professor in the department of Dietetics and Nutrition and advisor to the Student Dietetic Association (SDA). “This project was a great learning experience that was mutually beneficial to both the participants and the students.“

To help raise nutrition awareness, more than forty dietetics and nutrition students partnered with Common Threads, a national non-profit that offers nutrition education, afterschool cooking programs, and parent and educator engagement programs that teach children and adults how to choose, prepare, and enjoy healthy food at home, empowering them to become lifelong cookers and to share the family table.  Trained as Common Threads “Healthy Teachers,” the dietetic and nutrition students taught kids in summer camps about making healthier food choices through fun, hands-on lessons that include simple, child-friendly cooking lessons and tips.

Alexander Gonzalez gives nutrition advice to children as part of the Small Bites program.

“This is the second year that the SDA has partnered with Common Threads on this project. This year the program just about doubled from the first year and we were able to teach more than a thousand students some of the basics of nutrition,” said Alexander Gonzalez, former SDA president and coordinator for the project. “Our hope is that teaching children how to snack better and eat better will have a lifelong impact on their health.”

In partnership with Miami-Dade Parks & Recreation and the City of Miami Parks & Recreation Departments, Common Threads and the SDA students taught cooking lessons over the course of eight weeks to children in various summer camps at nearly forty parks in the county. The cooking lessons were each paired with a nutritional lesson to explain how the snack fit into a greater context of healthy eating. Lessons included healthy trail mix, paired with a lesson on the importance of eating a healthy plate with all food groups; mango lime parfait with plain nonfat yogurt, paired with a lesson on how to read food labels; and whole-wheat crackers with peanut butter and banana slices, paired with a lesson on the difference between whole and refined grains.

“We value our partnership with FIU’s Student Dietetic Association tremendously. Over the past two years, we have been blown away by the dietetic and nutrition students’ passion and commitment in bringing valuable and meaningful nutrition education and awareness to the families and children we serve,” said Mimi Chacin, Program Coordinator at Common Threads. “We could not have had the impact across the county this summer without the support of this team of hard-working young professionals and we look forward to many more opportunities to partner with students at FIU’s Stemple College and the SDA”.

Many of the children who took part in the program come from under-resourced neighborhoods, where obesity is statistically more prevalent and nutrition education is most needed.  At the end of the lessons, the children went home with recipe cards to continue practicing at home.

Stacey Behm teaches children cooking tips and tricks as part of the SDA collaboration with Common Threads.

“Good nutritional knowledge can save you money on your grocery bill but, more importantly, on your future healthcare bills. Starting with children gives them a world of opportunity and can make them a change agent for their families and communities,” added Gonzalez. 

The SDA students hope to continue the partnership next year and possibly expand the program to more FIU students so that more children can learn nutrition tips that can step them up for a lifetime of better choices.