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.
Nine-year-old Norah Harvey had shunned bell peppers until a couple of years ago, despite the efforts of her mother, Jennifer Harvey, to convince her they weren't spicy.
But that all changed when an educator from the Ann Arbor-based National Kidney Foundation of Michigan (NKFM) visited Norah's classroom at Walker-Winter Elementary in Canton to present a program called Physical Education and Nutrition Education Working Together, or "PE-Nut." The program uses a whole-school approach to motivate students, parents, and educators to eat healthier and be physically active. Bolstered by her classmates' courage, Norah tried a sample of a bell pepper dip that the educator offered. Bell peppers went from the realm of loathed to loved, and now Norah regularly asks to snack on them.
"Norah has definitely become a more adventurous eater thanks to PE-Nut," Jennifer Harvey says. "The fact that she is now willing to try new things has been good for us."
When asked why she thinks the PE-Nut program is important, Norah's reply is no muss, no fuss: "It helps kids be healthy and eat good food."
Setting foundations for healthy lives
PE-Nut, a comprehensive intervention which uses a K-2 and 3-5 curriculum called Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities, is funded in part by 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.
"We know how important kidney health is. We know that a lot of other things can come into play as well, such as heart disease and hypertension. A lot of our goals are about helping prevent disease and unwellness in a person's lifetime," says Shelby Gregory, NKFM program coordinator.
"We see the importance of instilling healthy habits at a young age," she adds. "Our hope is that the young people who we serve can carry on the lessons learned throughout their lives."
NKFM teaches in Melvindale-Northern Allen Park, Taylor, Westwood, Romulus, Wayne-Westland, Dearborn, and Dearborn Heights school districts. In each school NKFM works with, staff present six lessons to six classrooms. The curriculum incorporates structured physical activities, books, take-home bags, and healthy snack tastings.
"It ranges from going over proper handwashing, to discussing what it means to be a healthy role model in the community, to getting them active through our FitBits physical activity breaks," Gregory says.
Students participate in a FitBit, a physical activity portion of the PE-Nut program.
NKFM also incorporates a whole-school approach, connecting with teachers, parents, and students beyond the PE-Nut-served classrooms. It's not uncommon for NKFM staff to attend PTA meetings, work with cafeteria staff, and participate in school assemblies. NKFM reaches about 7,000 students per year through the program, and another 1,700 benefit from NKFM summer camp programming.
Some of those kids have been students of Pollyanna Griffin, a second-grade teacher at Schweitzer Elementary School in Westland. Griffin's experiences are testimony to PE-Nut's effectiveness. She reports that her students have loved the food tastings, the physical activities, and reading the books that are provided.
"We read a book called 'Vegetable ABCs,'" Griffin recalls. "After the story almost every child wanted to talk about certain vegetables they liked in the book, how they are cooked or served, and how they are an important part of the MyPlate model."
Beyond the classroom
Griffin notes that her students gain pride and empowerment from PE-Nut lessons, and that they're often eager to share their newfound knowledge. Jennifer Harvey has witnessed this behavior from Norah and couldn't be happier.
“SNAP-Ed provides this foundation of knowledge, empowering her to advocate for herself and for the family to have meaningful conversations about health," Jennifer Harvey says. "That's important because soon she'll be a teenager and I want her to talk about things openly."
The PE-Nut program not only feeds Norah's sense of self. It also promotes nourishment of various kinds for the entire Harvey household.
"Recently Norah asked to try cauliflower. I don't like cauliflower, but I served it because she asked and I wanted her to have a role in family decisions," Jennifer Harvey says. "It certainly wouldn't have ended up on our plates if the PE-Nut program hadn't brought it back into our diet."
A pumpkin dip that students got to sample as part of the PE-Nut program.
Open-minded students and their connections with adults at home are a perfect pairing for long-lasting impacts, Gregory says.
"It's always the best when I'm walking down a hall and a parent tells me their child helped make dinner or asked to shop for ingredients for a pumpkin dip we brought in," she says.
School's out, but lessons continue
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gregory doesn't know when she will walk down a school hallway again. But she's confident that the future of PE-Nut is bright. NKFM made some swift adaptations to the program and its staff continue to be a valuable resource during the pandemic.
"When everyone's lives were suddenly uprooted, our immediate response was to reach out and help without adding to any overwhelm," Gregory says.
Gregory's team reached out to teachers who have more direct contact with students, making sure they knew about practical things like local food distribution. Then the NKFM staff provided information on topics like how families can be creative with foods they have on hand when lockdowns mean fewer trips to the grocery store.
NKFM also compiled a small packet featuring worksheets and games related to healthy eating. The packets were sent out to interested schools that distribute lunches, for students to do at home.
"We also wanted to finish up what we hoped to cover during the school year, so we created an online activity guide that briefly touched upon what was missed," Gregory says.
Part of the effort was a video explaining how things grow in a garden and how food gets to the grocery store. Included were instructions for a brief activity that kids could do at home and an online link to a book that might have been read in class. One of Gregory's favorite initiatives has been a series of physical activity videos based on the FitBits component of PE-Nut.
"We had fun filming ourselves doing the activities and hope that kids watched and followed along at home," she says.
Right now NKFM staff are exploring how they can roll out the summer programming they would have normally delivered.
"We are still hoping to connect with sites that might be doing virtual summer camps or camps with different protocols," Gregory says.
It's difficult to plan ahead with so many question marks, but Gregory says that "even as the world continues to shift we'll be constantly looking at how we can support our schools."
"We'll be doing things a bit differently in these strange times, but the fun and value of PE-Nut will not change," she says.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at [email protected].
Photos courtesy of NKFM.