This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
Editor's note: Due to closures because of COVID-19, educators are moving SNAP-Ed programming to alternative learning platforms.
Matthew Nahan says Linking Lessons for Schools teaches middle and high schoolers how to change their diets and physical activity in simple ways that add up to a "potentially big impact" for themselves and their communities.
“The goal of Linking Lessons is to provide a basic introduction and education on the importance of nutrition and physical activity,” explains Nahan, community coordinator with Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) Generation With Promise, a team that focuses on community health, equity, wellness and diversity.
Linking Lessons puts registered dietitians, chefs, and other community health educators in Michigan middle and high schools where at least half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and which have geographical proximity to HFHS hospitals or medical centers. Educators work in the classrooms to engage students through a 10-week, 10-topic curriculum that includes discussions about the USDA's MyPlate program, physical activity, healthy beverages, fast food portion sizes, and healthy snacks intake.
The program is funded with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF). SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
The 30-minute sessions include tastings of healthy snacks like carrots and homemade ranch dressing, apple slices and yogurt, and cheese and whole-grain crackers. Then the students are tasked with healthy homework to practice what they've learned.
“We send them off to make some of those changes during the course of the week,” says Nahan. “We ask them to report back what they tried and how it went.” When they discuss fast food, for instance, the homework encourages selecting grilled chicken rather than a hamburger, water instead of a sugary beverage, or a small portion of French fries instead of a larger portion.
SNAP-Ed is a catalyst for lifestyle changes that go not just beyond the classroom, but beyond the students themselves. In addition to giving students a chance to challenge their own habits at home, the homework aims to engage students’ families and friends in the conversation as well. Trying a new physical activity with a sibling or cousin is just one example, says Murlisa Lockett, Generation With Promise project manager.
“We encourage students to take the information home and talk to their families and friends and encourage them to do the same things to help with wellbeing and mental and emotional health,” she says. “They all come into play for a healthy lifestyle.”
The program’s effectiveness is measured by student-reported healthy changes. Students are given the opportunity to share information about their habits prior to participating in Linking Lessons and then again at the end of the program. Most of the students report a decrease in their consumption of sugary beverages and an increase in physical activity, either on their own or during PE class. According to information from MFF, 35% of students say they increased their consumption of fruits and 38% say they increased their vegetables.
Expanding message to a broader population
During the 2019-20 school year, educators piloted a new version of Linking Lessons for about 75 students with cognitive disabilities at Glen H. Peters School and Lutz School for Work Experience in Macomb County. Before Michigan schools were shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19, educators also completed three sessions at Macomb Academy.
The topics were essentially the same, but educators slowed the pace of instruction and allowed additional time for review. Food tastings were still an essential part of the curriculum. Because some students were nonverbal, educators found unique ways to gauge student feedback on the program. One nonverbal student used a tablet to communicate with family about the benefits of reducing sugary beverages.
“They started a no-sugar beverage policy in their home. Last time I touched base with the school, they were still going strong,” says Amanda Aude, a registered dietitian with Henry Ford Macomb and Linking Lessons educator.
One student with sensory challenges tried foods that he’d never normally eat.
“The teacher and family were amazed that he was trying things in class and that he liked them. They were even able to incorporate those foods into his regular diet,” Aude says.
Because she teaches both versions of Linking Lessons and other nutrition-related courses, Aude gains maximum impact by customizing the message for her audience. In some cases, HFHS provides translators because Linking Lessons educators work among diverse school populations including Bengali, Arabic, Chaldean, and Latinx students.
“I like the challenge of meeting kids where they are at. I love to teach the nutrition message and the challenge of how I can fit it into an individual’s lifestyle,” Aude says. “Teens are similar in some ways, but they all come from different backgrounds. They may have experienced food insecurity or live in shelters or have a difficult home life. So how can we take this message and help them put it into their own lives?”
“Linking” for more impact
To reinforce the program messages, educators leave behind posters to engage the students visually and to serve as a reminder that lessons learned can be “linked” to other topics in the general curriculum.
“Social studies teachers have incorporated the messages, and science teachers have talked with students about planning their own gardens and the process of how vegetables grow. PE teachers use the messages to talk about energy in, energy out, and how eating fresh fruits and vegetables gives you higher energy levels to be ready to learn and be more focused,” says Lockett.
Linking Lessons educators say they enjoy engaging with teens about nutrition and physical activity and offering factual information that kids don’t always get at home.
“I have found that students really are curious about this stuff, and we create an environment where we never tell you not to eat something. We are clear that we are not the food police," Nahan says. "We are here to explore healthy activities, what that looks like, and how it benefits you. We create an environment where students can ask questions that they might not Google on their own or have an outlet to find out."
While some of the lessons seem to be common knowledge, a healthy lifestyle looks different to each of us, Lockett says.
“We know eating healthy and increasing physical activity is good for us, but this is information to put in the forefront of their families, their lives, and their community members,” she says. “They benefit from knowing how this will help them live longer, healthier, more fulfilled lives. We all want this for our families and our communities.”