As Alice Raad pulls a fresh bunch of carrots from her bag, the gaggle of 4-year-olds sitting in a circle around her squirm to get a better look.
Same goes for the leafy green spinach, colorful bell peppers and tangle of sprouts that make their way around the circle. The children hold the vegetables to their noses, use tiny fingers to explore different textures, and in some cases, wrinkle their noses at a “funny” smell or speck of dirt.
The lesson on eating healthy hardly seems like a lesson to these kids, who, after getting acquainted with the vegetables and singing a veggie song, devour the fresh produce wrapped simply in whole-wheat tortillas.
No ketchup. No dipping sauce. And many of the kids asked for seconds.
Mission accomplished for Raad, a first-year master’s student in nutrition science and volunteer with the College’s Nutrition NUTS program.
She, along with seniors Musa Koroma and Harrison Riggs, spend nearly every Friday at Telamon NC Crosby Head Start Center in Raleigh, educating youngsters on the value of eating fresh, healthy foods.
Developed by Suzie Goodell, assistant professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences, Nutrition NUTS (which stands for “Nutrition Understanding Through Service”) focuses on obesity prevention for low-income, low-resource parents and their preschool-aged children.
Goodell launched the program in Spring 2009, just after joining the College.
“I really want my work to embody the College’s land-grant mission of research, service and academics,” Goodell says. “I also want my students to become more connected to their community and build important leadership skills.”
The Nutrition NUTS program has two parts: “PEANUTS,” which is geared toward preschool-age children, and “WALNUTS,” which targets parents.
“Initially, our students went out and read to the kids,” Goodell says. “But the program has evolved to include hands-on lessons on everything from cooking to composting. Reading is still a major component, but not the only one.”
Led by one of Goodell’s doctoral students, Virginia Carraway-Stage, student volunteers design the curricula and conduct all of the in-school lessons. Students also created the program’s name and logo.
Their 45-minute lessons are built around four concepts: illustrate, investigate, illuminate and integrate. Each student conducts a weekly lesson, and some teach twice a week. They’re also responsible for their own transportation.
It seems like a lot of work. But these students say they’re learning as much as they’re teaching. And being with the kids is the ultimate reward.
“Seeing them learn a lesson that you actually created is just awesome,” says volunteer Sydney Riggsbee, a junior nutrition sciences major.
Allison Dipper, a junior majoring in nutrition sciences and human biology, says, “We’re learning so many techniques for interacting with children. And I read kids’ books all the time now!”
Many of the preschoolers with whom they interact have never been exposed to people outside their families or their teachers, Goodell says. “Our hope is that through this program, we’re getting kids interested in nutrition and healthy eating, as well as social interaction and literacy.
“The biggest thing we want out of it is for these children to know they’re loved, that the world is a good place and that there are people out there who care,” she says.
Funded through grants, private donations and Goodell’s faculty start-up funds, Nutrition NUTS programming is delivered to a number of Head Start and preschool locations in the Triangle and in Siler City. Plans are in the works to expand the program through partnerships with UNC-Greensboro and East Carolina University, Goodell says. She also hopes to partner with Smart Start locations next year.