Anita Vasudevan gives lessons on pomegranates or teaches third graders at Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit how to make sushi.
It’s all part of “Try it Tuesday,” a monthly opportunity for students to sample healthy foods. So far, they’ve tasted pomegranates and sushi, hence the lessons.
Vasudevan, a FoodCorps service member, serves with Building Healthy Communities (BHC) through Wayne State University’s Center for School Health. Her job is to provide nutrition and dietary education to local schools.
BHC provides grants for schools to improve their environment by encouraging healthy eating habits and physical activity. A recess equipment cart is also provided. Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology is a BHC-selected school.
A recent Wayne State graduate, Vasdudevan is also a yoga instructor and a pre-med student. What drew her to the FoodCorps program and later, BHC, was her interest in how exercise contributes to mental and physical well-being.
Her grandmother, an “avid yoga practitioner,” has been diabetic for the last 15 years.
“For her, yoga has been particularly helpful in coping with diabetes in some ways, as a regular form of exercise,” Vasudevan says. “For me, personally, it’s been real interesting to watch how people can take health into their own hands by making changes in their diet and lifestyles, as opposed to always having to look to medicine. Sometimes the preventative measures are overlooked in name of just popping a pill. It’s so much easier, but doesn’t have the same long-term benefits that a lifestyle change could.”
As a future physician she wants to understand how health takes place in settings other than the clinic, and how public places like schools can play a big role in developing a healthy lifestyle.
“As a physician, it’s important to know the impact a community environment can have,” Vasudevan says. “I’m really interested in going into the medical field from the perspective that works to bridge gaps between community health and individual health … bringing healthier lifestyles into mainstream medicine.”
Another aspect of her role is to evaluate the progress of each BHC school.
“Once a month, I go in to observe,” she says. “Then I do my evaluation (to see) whether changes have happened. If not, offering support and resources any way that I can to make the changes necessary. I work with Mama Cha-Rhonda (Timbuktu’s principal) on where the program stands, what she would like to see or made a little better.”
Vasudevan provides additional nutritional lessons and general education related to food, health and gardening, helping kids understand where food comes from, and why it’s important to eat “real food,” as opposed to processed foods.
Essentially, she supports the teachers and, by extension, parents.
“Teachers are really busy, and it’s not that they don’t think nutrition education isn’t important,” Vasudevan adds. “They don’t necessarily have the time to come up with a lesson plan for it. As we implement this kind of program, it’s really important to make it as easy as possible for teachers and administrators to work with it.”
Timbuktu’s African-centered culture helps, but it’s not enough.”The bigger roadblock comes in the accessibility,” she says. “Time constraints, family and work, it (healthy eating) just gets pushed to the backburner. We try to address that with tips for doing something.” It’s more than a job. It’s a philosophy.
Photos by Paul Engstrom
Healthy How To #1:
It takes multiple trials for kids to accept new foods, so keep offering them. Children’s tastes change over time. The odds are the foods they do not like today, may become tomorrow’s favorite.
Healthy How To #2:
Make trying new foods fun. Invite friends and family members to join in on informal “tastings” of new menu items. Often, the influence of others helps us become more open to new options.
ABOUT BUILDING HEALTHY COMMUNTIES
Building Healthy Communities (BHC) has been around for more than half a decade, helping to shape healthy school cultures across Michigan.
BHC, a statewide collaborative effort (founded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan), provides the tools a school needs to set goals for increased physical activity and dietary education. The program receives added support from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Fitness Foundation, United Dairy Industry of Michigan, University of Michigan and Wayne State University’s Center for School Health.
The goal, says Shannon Carney Oleksyk, a registered dietician and healthy living advisor for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, is to reach more schools to create a larger impact on the state of Michigan.
Since 2009, Oleksyk says, the amount of evidence linking healthy eating and physical activity to student achievement has increased. In fact, schools understand more now that healthy kids are better learners.
“Kids are naturally involved in the program because it is integrated fully into the school environment,” Oleksyk says. “We have learned that students are eager to take what they have learned and put it into practice. The beauty of this program is that the school environment is transformed. Now, students can easily make that healthy choice.”
Elementary schools participating in the BHC program receive a recess cart. Included within the recess cart are balls, hula-hoops, and games…all designed to keep the children moving. This “play equipment” is the foundation for building physical activities, and in essence, transforming recess.
“It’s really sad,” Oleksyk says. “In reality, at some schools their playground is just a parking lot. There might not be anything to do. We know that every minute matters. Getting them to use that 20 minutes of recess time to move their bodies is really important. A principal said to us: ‘Recess finally looks like recess again.’
“Some schools don’t have the resources. The recess cart is a pretty big deal, a big draw to the program.”
If you are a K – 5 school, it’s time to apply to participate in the 2017 – 2018 Building Healthy Communities program, a free program offered to qualified schools (March 29 registration deadline).
Additional K – 12 school programs will be announced soon.
To sign-up or learn more visit: bcbsm.com/buildhealth