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UW Extension Program, Casper College Class Boost Elementary Students’ Nutrition During Spring Break

March 25, 2016
a man and a woman measuring ingredients in a large plastic tub
Casper College students Brian Hiser and Hannah Mica put cocoa mix into small bags to be given to Casper elementary students. The Cent$ible Nutrition Program, Casper College and Food for Thought in Casper collaborated on the project. (UW Photo)

This class project should give Casper College students a warm feeling and a hot, nutritious drink for more than 650 Natrona County elementary students during their spring break.

Casper College students, college staff and volunteers took turns earlier this month in an assembly line to put together a shelf-stable cocoa mix recipe from the University of Wyoming Extension Cent$ible Nutrition Program (CNP) cookbook.

The Casper nonprofit Wyoming Food for Thought (WFFT) is to deliver the bags to various Natrona County Title 1 schools before the district’s spring break (March 28-April 1). Someone at each school (not all schools participate) decides how many students need food bags and lets WFFT know the number. Bags will be anonymously stowed in elementary students’ backpacks by school personnel while students are away at lunch.

Volunteers scooped cocoa, sugar and, most important, instant milk into large, clear plastic containers from which the mix was bagged.

Cocoa is not a usual food bag item WFFT provides during its weekly Friday deliveries to schools, but CNP educators identified calcium as a vital ingredient missing in the Friday food bags, so a mix was made with instant milk.

CNP educators teach the value of nutrition to elementary students in Title 1 schools. Title 1 schools are those with high percentages of low-income students under Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.     

There are hungry kids.

“It’s true,” says Natrona County CNP educator Julie Dwyer. “I go into the schools every week, and Monday mornings are the worst. Those kids come in hungry. How are you supposed to be ready to learn without anything in your stomach? They see me in the halls and are excited. They say, ‘She’s the food lady. She’ll teach us about nutrition but, at the end of the lesson, we are going to get a snack.’”

Hunger can cause behavioral changes in students, such as outbursts of anger or sadness, lethargy and the inability to focus, says Missy Nack, Casper Lincoln Elementary School counselor.                       

“If the body is not functioning properly because of lack of food and nutrition, it is hard to manage emotions and complete the tasks set out for us to learn and then perform,” Nack says.

The spring break effort was a service-learning project by students in Casper College instructor Kelsey Phillips’ principles of nutrition class.

Such a project brings course content to life, she says.

“You can lecture; you can show heart-wrenching videos. But, when you go out in the community and see you have to make 500 packets of milk to send home with kids who have no milk at home, it starts bringing it to life,” says Phillips, an environmental and natural sciences instructor.

Dwyer was taking the course as a refresher class, and an alphabet soup of sorts -- CC, CNP and WFFT -- came together to help feed kids.          

Dwyer says reasons for hunger vary: unemployment, too many mouths to feed and a lack of resources, or drug and alcohol addiction. Food may be available, but what there is might not be very nutritious for young children, she says.

“It could be that mom and dad are working as hard as they can, but can’t seem to get food on the table,” Dwyer says. “Another issue we see is families are too proud to ask for help.”

Natrona County CNP educators present lessons in 11 schools across the county.

“Growing up here, I know it’s not something you talk about, but there is a stigma that comes with asking for help,” she says. “Oftentimes, parents fall into a rut where, if they can provide their families with at least something on the table, that is enough; nutritional value of the food takes a back seat.”

Dwyer, who at one time was a single mother and faced issues, says she understands.

“Sometimes, parents just don’t realize what the outcome can be in their kids when they grow up on a diet that is lacking in nutritional value,” she says. “That’s why I love my job. I get to educate these parents and kids, and hopefully make a change for some of them.”

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