For the last four years Amy Baxter, lead teacher for the Summer Success Academy (SSA) program at Lincoln Consolidated Schools in Augusta Township, has heard the same refrain from students as summer approaches.
"The first thing a lot of kids ask about is the teachers from Healthy Habits Start Now," Baxter says. "It's a part of summer that they have come to love and always look forward to."
Livingston Educational Service Agency's (LESA) Healthy Habits Start Now (HHSN) program helps families understand the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables every day and the benefits of being more physically active. Through a team of four nutrition educators, HHSN reaches hundreds of students in grades 1-4 in nine elementary schools each year. Using Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities (HSHC) curriculum, they deliver nutrition lessons, tastings, recipes, and FitBit™ physical activity breaks.
Nutrition Educator Cristal Moyer leads a healthy snack demo with students.
The program is made possible through funding from a Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) SNAP-Ed grant. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed). SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers competitive grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.
Lincoln Consolidated Schools is just one of several community organizations with whom LESA has partnered to offer HHSN programming. Currently, HHSN is working with the Coalition of Community Partners of Washtenaw County and is involved in two initiatives that will broaden their reach from classroom to community.
The first will see them partner with Food Gatherers this year. The collaboration will extend HHSN’s reach and connections with families that could benefit from their offerings. A second community collaboration within the coalition is with Growing Hope. Teaming up with Growing Hope will allow HHSN to bring their initiatives to farmers market shoppers in Ypsilanti.
Nutrition Educator Kelly Voelker serves students a healthy snack.
While the community-focused work is newer, HHSN has been successfully providing nutrition education in schools for years. Delivering HSHC curriculum has been really rewarding, says Mary Beno, a regional school health coordinator for LESA who oversees SNAP-Ed programming in Washtenaw County. She's witnessed some of the ways that HHSN has helped to catalyze changes in the way students, their families, and their communities view nutrition and physical activity.
Beno says principals and teachers often share that, like their students, they've increased their own nutrition knowledge, are eating more fruits and vegetables, and are trying new foods. Their students also share lessons they've learned in school with their parents.
"This is precisely what we hoped to see from our programming, to start healthy habits now and develop healthy behaviors that will last a lifetime," Beno says.
She adds that the nutrition educators who are dedicated to developing lasting relationships with their schools are a fundamental part of HHSN's success.
Baxter wholeheartedly agrees. She says this was especially evident during the last summer school session.
"Due to COVID-19, we had to hold the academy virtually. They worked with us and delivered an online summer program," Baxter says. "I appreciated it because we didn't want to lose such a valuable partnership, and the kids were happy because they didn't miss out."
Healthy habits for a lifetime
HHSN made this year's SSA experience unforgettable, says Brenda Nelson, a second-grade teacher at Brick Elementary in Augusta Township.
Some programming highlights included virtual yoga demonstrations and fun cooking lessons where students saw HHSN nutritionists' own children in lively pre-recorded demonstrations.
"In some ways it was a much more intimate experience, especially the picture book read-aloud portions," Nelson says. "We could pause the video and kids could look at the pictures and ask questions more readily than we could have in a class setting."
Baxter says HHSN's literacy component initially made the partnership attractive, since SSA is for students who are struggling in reading and/or math.
"We were looking for partnerships within the community so that we could offer more than just reading and math as part of students' days," Baxter says. "We wanted to add something fun and something that kids could take home and use to better themselves."
Both Baxter and Nelson believe that the program has provided opportunities for students to gain a sense of empowerment. Noting that not all families are able to prioritize health, Baxter says she has observed that some students develop "a voice for themselves" and they go home and explore that voice with their parents. Nelson says she's moved when she sees the bravery younger students muster when they see a peer try a new food such as a green pepper and survive.
These are the kinds of tangible impacts that LESA’s SNAP-Ed initiatives are designed to make.
"It's rewarding to have a role in helping our youth, schools, and community members eat healthier and move more," Beno says. "Healthy habits that are established in our youth are carried throughout our lives."