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Lessons for a lifetime

By promoting good nutrition in children, Extension nutrition education assistants help prevent future health problems

two children looking at a potted plant

Nutritious foods like homemade salsa become tasty favorites when kids learn it's fun and easy to grow the vegetables themselves. Extension nutrition education assistant Catherine Anderson-Barnes teaches students that with a few easy-to-find items they can grow vegetables in small containers at home.

When Catherine Anderson-Barnes shows up at school with 70 pounds of sugar, kids pay attention. When she tells them that sack of refined sweetness is equal to drinking a 20-ounce soda every day for a year, they think twice about cracking open their next can. Whether it's cutting back on the sweet stuff or learning to love all things green and leafy, Anderson-Barnes imparts wisdom that carries lifelong benefits.

Nearly two decades ago, unhappy with health trends that were emerging, Grant County public health officials invited Extension nutrition education assistant Catherine Anderson-Barnes to provide research-based nutrition programs in schools. She's been leading some 600 K-6 students each year down the path to better nutrition ever since.

She began by developing a "Fruits and Vegetables Week" program that encourages students to try new foods like beets and dried plums. Kids learn that fruits and vegetables need to be part of their diet every day.

"We figured if we got them at an early age, they would understand the importance of fruits and vegetables and how they could help them decrease their chances of cancer," she says.

Anderson-Barnes is one of more than 100 Extension nutrition education assistants throughout the state who teach children and adults about healthy food choices. Neighbors teaching neighbors, they tailor nutrition education classes for a wide variety of community settings.

Outside of school, Anderson-Barnes offers programs for adults through Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Head Start, senior dining, food shelf, and related settings. Public health nurse Cyndi Osier, who coordinates WIC for Grant County, says those educational efforts are tremendously valuable. "Catherine provides information that I don't have time to share," she says. "We are just really lucky to have her."

Catherine Anderson-Barnes

Anderson-Barnes' trademark is creative fun. Sometimes she dresses up as a carrot. During Calcium Week, large inflatable cows and black and white balloons float through school lunchrooms. She's hoping to bring in a real cow this fall. She keeps students engaged by teaching them to plant their own salsa gardens using empty cans from school food service and soil donated by the local hardware store.

Third-grader Maddison Larsen was among the beneficiaries of Anderson-Barnes' programming last year. "I liked it because we got to learn what is better for us to eat," Maddison says, "like instead of going home and eating chips, you could have some fruit."

The campaign Anderson-Barnes developed has been so successful that she put together a set of lesson plans that is now being used around the state. In the 2009-10 school year she began a new program that focuses on the food pyramid and trains students to read labels for fats, sugar and salt. Most recently, she added exercise to the mix to head off obesity. It's not surprising, then, when asked to reveal her biggest challenge, she answers without hesitation: Time.

For more information, visit the Extension Nutrition Education program.

Watch a video on planting container "salsa gardens."

Childhood obesity today

  • 32 = percent of American children and adolescents who are overweight or obese
  • 39 = percent chance that girls born in 2000 will develop diabetes if current trends continue
  • 200 = percent by which obesity has grown in American children over the past 30 years
  • 84 = percent of children involved in USDA Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (ENEP) programs who made a positive behavioral change
  • 88 = percent of individuals who read labels and made better nutrition decisions after participating in EFNEP
  • $10.75 = return in terms of avoided health-care costs on $1 invested in the EFNEP program
  • 85,000+ = number of adults and children reached by University of Minnesota Extension Health and Nutrition staff in 2009
N.E.A. with children

Extension nutrition education assistant Carol Langseth (left) gets kids bouncing with physical activity as a part of Nobles County Time to Share, a program aimed at giving kids a healthy start.

Let's move, Minnesota!

It was pouring rain the day Nobles County Time to Share families planned to spend exploring outdoors. No matter: Indoors, spirits were sunny as parents, their preschoolers and siblings romped with a food-pyramid-colored parachute and made healthy, picnic-themed snacks.

Time to Share is sponsored by Nobles Integrative Collaborative, a coalition that includes Extension nutrition education assistants Carol Langseth and Letica Rodriguez. Established in the same spirit as First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign, the program aims to help give kids a healthy start on life through improved access to healthy foods and increased physical activity.

Participants share food traditions, and then learn ways to make them healthier. They also take part in fun and weather permitting outdoor physical activities, such as hiking local parks and picking strawberries.

"We choose fun physical activities," Langseth says. "The parents are very interested in doing what's best for their children." Participant Lucia Luza says she's learned to give her three children less sugar and salt.

"They're eating more vegetables," she says. "They haven't wanted to try things, but I've learned to be consistent and patient in having them try new foods."

County dollars go far when Extension nutrition education assistants are involved: Federal funds pay their salary through the University. And the investment is for a lifetime. By improving childhood nutrition, nutrition education assistants combat negative health trends that could create huge costs down the road.

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