Soba noodles and veggie tacos are not entrees found in every school cafeteria.
Students at Stephen Foster Elementary School in Gainesville will be introduced to these foods as part of a county-wide pilot nutrition education program called Kids in the Kitchen.
The program was started on March 11 by Pamela McMahon, a retired University of Florida faculty member and registered dietician.
Kids in the Kitchen is the first program of its kind in Alachua County, providing nutritional education in an after-school setting.
McMahon said Foster Elementary was selected for the program because, as a Title 1 school, its students qualify for 100 percent free lunch.
The students work with McMahon and her UF student volunteers to learn about nutritious foods. She introduces these foods using a curriculum created by the University of Missouri and she diversifies it to meet the needs of her students.
The students play food-related games to handle fruits and vegetables that many of them were not previously familiar with.
“The mission of the program is to provide nutrition education based on dietary guidelines for Americans, in hopes of preventing childhood obesity,” said Annie Sheldon, the Family Nutrition Program coordinator for Alachua County.
The cooking supplies and food used at Foster Elementary were donated by the Family Nutrition Program at the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, the Florida Component of the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education.
In order for a school to qualify to participate in Kids in the Kitchen, 51 percent or more of its students must be receiving free or reduced lunch. This qualification ensures the program reaches more low-income students in Alachua County.
Many Foster Elementary students live in low-income neighborhoods near the school, said Bailey Bruce, the extended day program enrichment coordinator. For some students, the meal they receive in school is their only true meal of the day.
Right now, the pilot program has 10 students, but Bruce hopes to see it grow next year.
“Next year, we would love to include more students and provide more in–depth skills to them,” Bruce said.
McMahon said Alachua County is doing a lot to make sure students have access to healthier meal options. More school gardens are popping up, and the county has hired a local organic farmer who provides lettuce to the schools.
“Part of it is introducing them to things we take for granted,” McMahon said.
Sheldon hopes the program will take off next year and even expand into the normal school day.
“If you don’t have access to healthy foods, there is a higher risk of obesity because you are eating cheap foods and junk,” Sheldon said.
Currently, 20 elementary schools meet the qualifications for nutritional education to be provided by the county. Nutritional education is not mandated in the state of Florida. Programs like Kids in the Kitchen provide access to information students might not otherwise receive.
“We would be happy to take on as many schools as we can and are hiring additional program assistants so we can meet with as many programs in the county that qualify for funding,” she said.