School of Human Ecology wraps up high school nutrition project

Allison Coutinho and Samatha Hutson from Tennessee Tech’s School of Human Ecology prepare snacks for students.

COOKEVILLE – Seaweed snacks and nut butters are not something you usually find in the backpacks of students, however the students at White Plains Academy in Cookeville got to try these things and more, thanks to a nutrition project by the School of Human Ecology at Tennessee Tech University.

 The project came from the utilization of $2,500 in funding from the Healthy for Life grant from the American Heart Association and American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. The grant focuses on funding community programs that improve nutritional understanding for underserved populations. 

“It’s helping to improve healthy eating habits focusing in on different aspects of nutrition and wellness, to individuals who usually are in groups that maybe they don’t have access to that information, or they are very underserved and underrepresented,” said Samantha Hutson, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics and director of the community health nutrition program at Tech.

This is the second time that Tech has won the grant. The first was for the 2020/2021 fiscal year, when the human ecology department created a four-week wellness program for the students at Head Start in Gainesboro. The program was headed up by Hudson, along with Allison Coutinho, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics; and Hannah Upole, assistant professor of merchandising and design.

That year, the lessons were virtual due to social distancing regulations, however Tech was still able to provide engaging lessons for the young children on eating healthy and trying new foods. Each child participating also received a $25 gift card to a local grocery store once a week for the duration of the program, as well as a large bag of food to take home at the end.

“We got some really good feedback on it,” said Upole. “We had families saying, ‘Thank you. You know, this helped us out a lot.’  And that’s what pushed us to want to go and do this again and serve another group.”

This latest 2021/2022 fiscal year, Upole, Hudson and Coutinho worked with fellow Tech faculty Rufaro Chitiyo, assistant professor of child development and family relations; and Elizabeth Ramsey, assistant professor in family and consumer sciences education to start a new project with White Plains Academy. They, along with Tech nutrition and dietetics students, were able to work in-person with teenagers at the school to introduce them to different types of foods and talk about health and wellness.

“They were really interested and really engaged in talking about different types of foods,” said Chitiyo. “And they asked good questions.”

Tech students led parts of the program themselves and found that the students were very interested in listening to college students who were close to their age talk about health and nutrition. The Tech students earned required volunteer hours for their service, but many also expressed how the project made them think seriously about working with children and young adults in underserved populations as part of their future career. Teachers at White Plains Academy reported that their students looked forward to the sessions and were interested in what the Tech students had to say.

“There’s a lot of research out there that says if someone – especially kids – are just exposed to a certain food, they’re more likely to purchase it again or at least to be willing to try new things,” said Hudson. 

This time as parting gifts, the White Plains Academy students received items like lunchboxes and snack bags filled with new foods to try, water bottles, measuring spoons, a cookbook geared toward teenagers and other products to encourage healthy eating.

“Apparently the seaweed snacks were just a whole experience for them,” laughed Upole. “They’d never had a seaweed snack before. And there were different types of nut butters, nutrition bars, and those types of things. They had a chance to experience them but also, they could take some home with them and share it with their family or friends so multiple people could try something new.”

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