This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
Editor's note: Due to closures because of COVID-19, educators are moving SNAP-Ed programming to alternative learning platforms.
When leaders of the Calhoun Intermediate School District’s (CISD) SPLASH/Nutrition program run into parents of the kids they work with, they often hear the question: “You’re the person who got my kid to try a new vegetable. How did you get them to do that?”
The answer is simple: through classroom sessions that promote healthy eating and fitness through fun activities – including a lot of food tastings.
CISD presents a five-week series of SPLASH (which stands for Shaping Positive Lifestyles and Attitudes through School Health) sessions in classrooms in Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph counties. During the 45-minute sessions, SPLASH leaders use the Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities curriculum to engage students in healthy eating and fitness activities.
The program is funded with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from MFF. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
Students taste a crunchy yogurt parfait in a SPLASH/Nutrition session at Beadle Lake Elementary in Battle Creek.
“The content is very relevant to the students. They are excited and eager to participate in the program,” says Angela Blood Starr, CISD regional school health coordinator. “When the nutrition educators get to the last session, the students tell them, ‘No! We don’t want you to leave!’”
Travis Winchell, CISD regional SPLASH coordinator, does the majority of his work in the classroom with kids ages five through 11. He says lesson topics may range from nutrition to physical activity to the importance of keeping your hands clean, and there’s always a taste-test featuring healthy food at the end.
“Taste-tests are the students’ favorite part. They always wonder what they’re going to try,” Blood Starr says. “In the past we focused on fruits and vegetables – for example, raw zucchini and hummus. This year, we’ve done yogurt parfaits, pumpkin dip, and trail mix.”
Winchell notes that anytime he brings in food, the kids get really excited.
“That makes it easy for us. They really love it. They get a chance to try new things and keep it fun,” he says. “I’ve been in some of the schools for multiple years. Kids know me from kindergarten and first grade. They remember the foods they had in years past.”
Elizabeth Schultheiss’ eight-year-old son, John, has been involved in CISD’s SPLASH/Nutrition programming for the past three years at Beadle Lake Elementary in Battle Creek.
“[John is] a super-picky eater, so the fact that’s he trying some of this stuff is great,” she says. “He was pretty nervous about trying new things. I didn’t think he would. I was just impressed that they got him to try them. In our family, that was a huge milestone.”
When asked if he’s been eating healthier foods, John says, “I try to, because it’s not good for your body to eat candy.”
While SPLASH/Nutrition programming focuses on students in the classroom, it’s also been successful at creating broader change in students’ families and communities. Most of the schools involved in the SPLASH/Nutrition program have at least 50% of students receiving free and reduced lunches; in some, the number is as high as 90%. The SPLASH/Nutrition program helps those students and their families find new ways to eat nutritious food outside of the school lunchroom.
“We do share resources with parents. We send home tip sheets on things like healthy snacks and how to save money at the grocery store,” Winchell says. “We send all the teachers the taste-test recipes to share with parents electronically or to send home in students’ folders.”
School staff are changing their lifestyles as a result of the program as well.
“They see themselves as role models for their students and are slowly changing their own habits,” Blood Starr says. “This is another key piece that will make healthy eating sustainable — if students see teachers reflecting those healthy habits.”
The SPLASH/Nutrition program has inspired some schools to launch their own nutrition and fitness initiatives, such as limiting sugary snacks during parties or adding fitness stations in hallways where kids can opt to, for example, do a few push-ups. At North Pennfield Elementary in Battle Creek, the program motivated the parent-teacher organization to renovate the school’s greenhouse. Kids and parents worked on the greenhouse together, using building materials and seeds donated by local businesses.
The renovated greenhouse at North Pennfield Elementary in Battle Creek.
“Once the greenhouse was up and running, the parents kept a log of activity and grew enough to give away to teachers and students,” says Kevin Hershock, SPLASH/Nutrition health and nutrition educator. “The season extended into the school year and they were able to go into schools and offer students additional taste-tests. The teachers enjoy bringing their classes out to the greenhouse to see how things were growing and teach a lesson.”
A sign announcing the produce of the month at Town and Country supermarket in Bellevue.
SPLASH/Nutrition has also inspired surrounding communities to get in on the action. FireKeepers Casino Hotel and The Fire Hub restaurant stock a free salad bar at Athens High School with produce from the restaurant’s greenhouse. Anyone in the school building is welcome to have a free salad every day. In Bellevue, the Town and Country Supermarket has created a loyalty card program that encourages students to buy a produce item of the month for 25 cents.
“That has been really helpful for students who frequent the store,” Blood Starr says. “It encourages healthy eating habits when they can get a piece of fresh produce before or after school.”
Because of SNAP-Ed, the positive impact on Calhoun County has been remarkable – and it all starts with simply introducing kids to yummy, healthy food.
“These kids are getting good information that I didn’t have when I was younger,” Winchell says. “Hopefully, we are setting them up for future health and wellness.”