Childhood obesity has become a major health problem in the United States. This is especially true among low-income families that often lack the time and budget to commit to proper nutrition. Nebraska 4-H Youth Development is addressing this issue through a program called WeCook: Fun with Food and Fitness.
WeCook is a 12-week program targeting underserved fourth- and fifth-graders. There are 30 youth participating from Arnold Elementary and West Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln. Those schools were selected based on the percentage of students in the system receiving free and reduced lunches.
Participants attend two 60-minute sessions per week dedicated to teaching food preparation skills, the importance of nutrition using USDA guidelines and increasing physical activities through interactive games. The program model was created using a unique combination of current research and evidence-based curricula. While the methodology behind the program activities is scientific, participants and their parents see it as a safe and enjoyable after-school option.
“It’s really about having fun,” said Tara Dunker, state program coordinator for WeCook. “We want youth enrolled in the program to learn without recognizing that they are learning.”
One aspect of the program that youth get excited about is the opportunity to wear a Fitbit activity tracker. Each participant gets to wear a Fitbit for one week at the beginning of the program and again at the end of the 12 weeks. The Fitbit devices track their 24-hour movement, including sleeping patterns. Statistical analysis is then conducted to assess changes related to goals of the WeCook program.
Parents of WeCook participants also get involved. During the program, there are three family meal nights where participants and their family prepare a healthy meal together. The idea is for healthy cooking to become a fun activity that the whole family can participate in at home.
Participants should walk away from the program with an increased knowledge of healthy food choices, improved food selection skills and an increased knowledge of physical activity benefits.
“Whether it’s learning basic cooking skills or developing a love for fruits and vegetables, those lifelong habits you establish as a child will carry over into adulthood,” said Youth Development Specialist Michelle Krehbiel.
The first 12-week pilot session of the WeCook program was completed in December. Early results showed a slight increase in perception of ability to make healthy food and beverage choices. Data will be gathered in future semesters to indicate clearer results.
WeCook is funded through the Children, Youth and Families at Risk grant program through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. While children and youth living in low-income families and high-risk environments face challenges, the program uses youth development strategies to focus on positive outcomes for young people rather than only on preventing negative outcomes. The five-year WeCook project is funded through summer 2019.
Nebraska 4-H hopes that community partnerships will lead to WeCook being sustainable beyond the length of the grant. Those partnerships include Lancaster County Extension, Lincoln Public Schools, Lincoln Community Learning Centers, Lincoln Housing Authority and Lincoln Parks and Recreation. The groups assist the program by providing curricula, expertise, facilities, recruitment and volunteers to conduct programming.
Lincoln Parks and Recreation has committed to help expand the program into a summer session. The session will have slightly different programing but will still be a 12-week session featuring research and evidence-based curricula.
For more information on the WeCook program, contact Dunker at 402-472-4741 or email@example.com.