Nutrition in Action serves kids and adults an extra helping of health

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 YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids Nutrition in Action Director Jennifer Lambert shared a red pepper and hummus tasting with a group of school kids, the children turned their noses up. They all thought red peppers were extremely spicy and they’d never seen hummus before. But after Lambert encouraged them to try just one bite, the kids couldn’t wait for red peppers to be on the school lunch menu again.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids' Nutrition in Action program.

“We’re getting them to understand the importance of choosing fruits and vegetables offered at lunch,” says Lambert. “We encourage them to choose snack recipes that reflect what’s offered in their lunchroom, to make the connection. ‘Hey, you tried a red pepper with me. Now you know what it is. Please take one at lunch.’”


For the past 15 years, the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids has brought its Nutrition in Action program to West Michigan schools and other organizations serving families and individuals with income challenges. This school year, from October 2019 through March 2020, programming in a dozen school districts in Kent, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties shared healthy living strategies with 4,558 youth. While COVID-19 has put face-to-face programming on hold, some schools are electing to share video lessons prepared by some of the program’s 13 nutrition educators as part of their online curriculum.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids' Nutrition in Action program.

“We started small with a few schools and districts and have grown ever since,” says Nancy Maiquez, associate executive director of community engagement, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. “We have an excellent team of educators who are all experts in the field and have been educators most of their careers … and two food service staff, who purchase the ingredients and prepared all of our healthy tastings for the face-to-face programming.”


The program is funded by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation (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.


Healthy kids through healthy snacks


Nutrition in Action is comprised of two separate programs: Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities, which takes place in schools during the school day; and Cooking Matters, which involves school youth as well as families through partnerships with various agencies and nonprofits.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids' Nutrition in Action program.

Nutrition in Action educator Megan Hainer has been teaching the six-week Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities series to kindergarteners through fifth graders in nine Wyoming, Kelloggsville, and Grand Rapids public schools for the past six years.


“I go into classrooms and do a little bit of physical activity and teach nutrition education based on MyPlate about snacks and healthy eating,” she says. “We also talk about things like handwashing and why that’s important.”


The physical activity is guided by MFF’s FitBits books, which come with music CDs to accompany jumping jacks, yoga, and other forms of fun movement. The FitBits are designed to simultaneously teach nutrition concepts while giving kids a wiggle break to help them pay better attention. In addition to a nutrition lesson, each session includes a healthy tasting that the kids help prepare and then eat. When kids balk at trying something new, they are encouraged to take one “no thank you” bite.


“We try to make the healthy snack fun and get the kids to understand that it can be a choice when they go other places,” Hainer says. “If they have a hard time trying it, we make it a challenge between classrooms.”


“We frequently work with students that are food insecure because some families have a hard time getting enough food,” Hainer says. “Often kids will say that the only meals they get are McDonald’s because that’s all they have time for. There may not be a next meal on the table at home.”


Making cooking matter to families


Of course, parents are the integral link to kids eating healthy at home. That’s where Nutrition in Action’s Cooking Matters program comes in.


“If we’re offering Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities in schools, we try to do some parent education with the same group of parents whose kids we are teaching, to create that excitement with parents,” Lambert says.


Offered to SNAP-eligible adults and families as well as youth in after-school programs, Cooking Matters classes teach nutrition basics through engaging activities, grocery store tours, and cooking demos where, after doing their own meal prep and cooking, participants enjoy a meal together.


“For me personally, Cooking Matters classes can be pure magic,” says Tessa Kwant, YMCA Greater Grand Rapids lead nutrition educator. “I watch as community unfolds and everybody gets fed. This is dinner tonight. I get to be a part of that relationship-building and watch the kind of wave that occurs. We are open and welcoming and hold the space. The participants really show up.”

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids' Nutrition in Action program.

Cooking and eating healthy can be challenging in many ways for Cooking Matters participants. Kwant notes that many lack access to transportation to get to class, or to access a grocery store that offers healthy foods. Others face housing issues or lack a space where they can cook meals from scratch.


So YMCA staff make an effort to reach people where they are. In addition to offering classes in Grand Rapids Public Schools facilities, staff have also taught at Dwelling Place Herkimer Apartments, which serves people experiencing homelessness or with special needs in Grand Rapids’ Heartside District. Kwant says only five of the required 10 minimum participants signed up for the first Cooking Matters class at Herkimer Apartments, but she decided to go ahead and teach the first class anyway. By the second class, word of mouth spread and 15 people had joined.


“For a group of adults whose lives are chaotic, attending a six-week class can be a challenge,” Kwant says. “The class is its own best advertisement. When people are in it, they have a good time, learn new things, and are doing something healthy for themselves.”


SNAP-Ed has long been recognized as a catalyst for community change. In too many communities where grocery stores and farm stands have been replaced by corner stores and fast food, those changes have been accompanied by increases in chronic disease, exacerbated mental health issues, and behavioral problems in schools. The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids is using food as a vehicle for positive change, reintroducing neighbors to the foods that build health, wellness, family, and community.


“Our programs are opening my eyes to the culture around food. When I first started doing this program six years ago, I thought it was our job to say, ‘Don’t you dare go to a fast food restaurant,’” Hainer says. “I am learning how to speak differently to families about food, working with them in creating a healthier lifestyle.”

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