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HPERS offers gardening and healthy eating program to Berkeley, Jefferson elementary schools

ISSUED: 5 May 2016
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Shepherd University is working with eight elementary schools in Berkeley and Jefferson counties to teach children the benefits of eating healthier foods. Shepherd’s Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Sport (HPERS) program received a $100,000 subcontract from West Virginia University to implement United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) gardening education and Smarter Lunchroom programs for the first time in the Eastern Panhandle.

The federal government requires that anyone receiving SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps) have some type of nutrition education to help them learn how to use their benefits wisely. Dr. Danielle Hollar and Alexis Greer are coordinating Shepherd’s efforts in the elementary schools, which includes Marlowe, Mill Creek, Mountain Ridge, and Potomac in Berkeley County and Page Jackson, Ranson, North Jefferson, and Blue Ridge in Jefferson County. Students from Shepherd will also help.

There are two components to the program—gardening education and smarter lunchrooms. Seven of the eight schools will participate in a program that includes classroom instruction as well as time in the garden called Learn, Grow, Eat, Go! Each school is in the process of installing gardens where children will learn to grow fruits and vegetables. Some gardens will be in the ground while others will be in raised beds or containers, depending on how much land the school has.

“I’m excited to be part of this project in bringing nutrition and gardening curriculum to students in both Berkeley and Jefferson counties,” said Greer, who spent 11 years as a public school teacher. “In underfunded communities they often don’t have access or opportunities and this is a great way for the community to get involved, to support nutrition education, and to expose children to healthy, nutritious foods.”

Through the Smarter Lunchroom program, Hollar and Greer work with cafeteria managers and staff at each school to help them market the healthy food they serve, and to make small changes in existing food service activities, with the aim of increasing school meal participation, consumption of nutritious foods, and reducing waste.

“We might give them posters to market whole grains or reduced-fat dairy items,” Hollar said. “We might try to ask them to move their milk around to make sure white milk is up front so that becomes the first choice for children. We might work on lighting, maybe put a nice little light on the food service line to make it feel a little better, or provide fruit in baskets instead of having it on trays. There is a wide variety of things we can do to just the nudge the student to make the healthy choice.”

Two Shepherd students are currently signed up to help with the program. Annika Rochefort of Shenandoah Junction is an education major, and Helen Zumbach of Frederick, Maryland, is a music education major.

“I think nutrition information is really important for children to have,” Rochefort said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to start them young and help them grow through the years.”

“In the education department we do a lot of observing, but not enough hands-on,” Zumbach said. “This is hands-on helping children in the field and it’s a good opportunity.”

Rochfort and Zumbach recently attended a tree planting at Page Jackson Elementary School in Jefferson County where kindergarten students helped plant two apple trees donated to the program by the Eastern Panhandle Conservation District.

“It’s so exciting because they are both going to be teachers,” said Dr. Virginia Hicks, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies. “They’re very sincere and hardworking.”

Shepherd’s subcontract to carry out SNAP-Ed activities in the Eastern Panhandle as part of the larger statewide federal grant ends in September. Hollar said Shepherd is applying to double the grant for next year which would allow the program to expand so it can offer a food of the month curriculum in schools and a mobile health texting program that will deliver healthy food or gardening messages once a week to parents.

Hollar, who has managed other similar programs through her nonprofit Healthy Networks Design and Research, said teaching children about proper nutrition is an effective way to help families make better choices when they spend their SNAP benefits.

“We’ve had gardens installed at Head Start centers or elementary schools and parents have called the schools asking ‘how do I garden?’ Or they’re calling about something the child has harvested from the garden and has enjoyed and wants to have at home,” Hollar said. “If you focus on particular nutrient-rich foods, if we have targeted education and experiential tasting opportunities, then the children go home and ask for those foods that they’ve tasted in the classroom as part of the gardening education.”

Listen to the interview HERE.

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