Nutrition volunteer makes learning about food lively and fun

Nutrition volunteer makes learning about food lively and fun – Mary Zybura

Marty Boner

Mary Zybura, food program specialist at the Food and Nutrition Service’s Concord, New Hampshire, field office, has had a busy week.

On Moday, she worked on authorizing food stores to accept food stamps. Tuesday, she reviewed food stamp quality control cases. Wednesday, she met with respresentatives from farmers’ markets. Thursday, she conducted store visits.

It’s Friday morning now, and Zybura is talking about her experiences as a volunteer last year for a project sponsored by the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). The project places nutritionists, dietitians, and home economists in Head Start centers to provide nutrition education to young children.

Administered by AHEA throughout the country, the volunteer consultant program is an outstanding example of cooperation between private and public institutions. Through it Head Start and the AHEA work together to improve children’s nutritional wellbeing. And volunteers like Mary Zybura demonstrate that individual contributions and personal commitment can make a difference.

One of 18 volunteers in New Hampshire

Zybura, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in elementary education, was 1 to 18 volunteers working in New Hampshire Head Start centers last year. She and the other volunteers were recruited and trained by Valerie long, a cooperative extension specialist in food and nutrition, who began the project in her state 3 years ago by writing a grant request to AHEA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

As Long explains, the project grew out of a need for more nutrition education at Head Start. “Nutrition is an integral part of Head Start,” she says, “but the program cannot afford to pay for nutrition education consultants. So Head Start entered into an agreement with AHEA whereby AHEA would develop a training curriculum and recruit professionals.

“AHEA receives funding for the project from the private sector,” she adds, “so there is no cost to Head Start.”

When AHEA approved Long’s request. She began accepting applications. “It was a selective process,” she say. ” I looked at education, volunteer experience, and what an applicant hoped to get out of the project. I was looking for people who were interested in working with the low-income population and who were creative in dealing with limited resources in a program like Head Start.”

Long says that in the project’s first year in her state, approximately half of the volunteers were dietitians with traditional, clinical backgrounds. The other half were home economics teachers. The second year, there were far more dietitians. While the project is not operating in New Hampshire this year, Long hopes to see it start up again in the future.

Recruits received special training

After selecting the volunteers, Long would conduct a 2- or 32-day training session. The training, for which volunteers received professional credits, acquainted them with the project and Head Start and focused on the nutritional needs of children, ways children like to learn, strategies for working with parents, and creative teaching methods.

After the training was completed Long would match up volunteers with Head Start centers, usually by geographic area. The volunteers would then contact their assigned centers to set up appointments with the directors. In joining, volunteers committed themselves to 30 hours of teaching. They visited their assigned center to conduct nutrition sessions approximately once a month.

“We weren’t interested in people who just wanted the professional development credits provided as part of the training,” says Long. “We recruited people who wanted to help, who had good skills, and who could give a lot to the program–people like Mary Zybura.

“Mary was perfect. She has wonderful skills. and the project gave her the opportunity to work directly with clientele–she is the typical profile of someone who has a very interesting job but one that doesn’t provide this direct contact.”

Zybura was indeed an ideal volunteer for the program. In the 1970’s she taught first through third grades in Rhode Island. In 1978 she became a registered dietitian and, since joining FNS in 1979, has worked with USDA’s food assistance programs, including the Food Stamp Program. This was especially helpful for her as a volunteer because the families of many Head Start children receive food stamps.

Beyond that, Zybura met Long’s most stringent criterion–she wanted to help. “This was an opportunity to use my expertise as a teacher and a nutritionist to help low-income people,” she says, explaining why she volunteered. “Teaching and working with children come very naturally to me, and I’ve always thought nutrition education needs to begin with little people.”

Worked closely with Head Start staff

Zybura and other New Hampshire volunteers worked closely with the staff of their assigned centers. They coordinated their lessons with the instructors; they worked with the cooks on nutrition and food safety issues; and they planned their lessons to parallel New Hampshire’s Head Start nutrition curriculum. They wanted to make sure their teaching was consistent with the curriculum and that the learning experience was a lasting one for the children.

New Hampshire’s Head Start nutrition curriculum is divided into months of the school year. Each month concentrates on a specific group of foods, and the volunteers targeted their lessons around those groups.

“March for example,” Zybura says, “is Peanut Month, so during my March visit we had a lesson on peanuts.”

With the children sitting in a semi-circle around her, Zybura started by asking if anyone knew what a peanut looks like. “A number of them raisedd their hands,” she says, “and some did not.”

She passed around a handful of unshelled peanuts for the youngsters to look at and handle, then cracked one open and talked about the shell and the nut. Using a colorful poster of a peanut plant, she showed how peanuts grow underground. She also named some food products that have peanuts in them and, in easyd-to-understand language, explained how peanuts contribute to a healthy diet.

Lesson complemented other activities

The lesson complemented other activities planned for the month. For example, by the day of Zybura’s visit, instructors has already read to the children a book called “The Lion Who Liked Peanut Butter.” They had hung posters of peanuts on the walls and had pointed out whether a peanut product was being served at breakfast or lunch.

For each visit, Zybura would spend 3 or 4 hours preparing in advance. This included planning lessons, gathering meterials, and talking with instructors. Each lesson included time for the children to make something good to eat.

This, says Zybura, was important. “It’s one thing to talk to children about something that’s good for them to eat. But it’s another thing to involve them in making and eating something from the food. If the children hear about a food, then taste it and like it, they’ll remember it.”

Making peanut butter balls was part of the lesson on peanuts. With Zybura’s help, the children crushed corn flakes, stirred in honey and peanut butter, and rolled the mixture into small balls which went into the refrigerator for a few minutes before being served for morning snack.

“Three cookie sheets of peanut butter balls disappeared in only a few minutes, and the review were all positive,” says Zybura.

“The volunteers made things we knew the kids would like,” says Long, “they they would give them the recipes. We hoped the children would go home and say, ‘Mom, I had the most wonderful thing today,’ and then maybe mom would make it.”

Volunteers reached out to parents

Involving parents was one of the project’s goals, as it is traditionally for Head Start. “Head Start centers like to have parents come in at least once a month for an information session,” says Long. “Some of our volunteers did nutrition presentations for parents at the same time. We also had a newsletter for parents and gave lots of materials to volunteers to pass on to parents.”

Some volunteers reached out in other ways, too. “For example,” says Long, “some of the volunteers weighed and measured the children to see if they were growing as they should. If there was a problem and the volunteer was a registered dietitian, the volunteer could work individually with parents to help solve it. That’s where this kind of volunteer was so valuable.”

Because of her professional experience, s Zybura offered parents nutrition counseling as well as information on USDA food assistance programs.

“I distributed many USDA publications dealing with budgeting and wise food shopping,” she says. “Parents s asked a lot of questions about using their food stamps, and that opened the door for me to talk about stretching food dollars and budgeting.

“For example, I explained that instead of buying a cold sandwich for $3.25 at a deli, they could use the money and buy bread, coldcults, and lettuce to make four sandwiches.

“Most of the Head Start mothers I worked with were under the age of 25 and had few, if any, cooking skills,” Zybura adds. “That’s something I hope to devote time to another year–developing some kind of informational packet or doing on-sites sessions on simple cooking techniques. I’d like to teach parents how to put together quick but nutritious meals and snacks for themselves and their children.”

In working with parents, Zybura emphasized that their children may like some things they do not. “A lot of choices parents make at the supermarket are biased,” she says. “I explained that just because they don’t like apples, it doesn’t mean their kinds won’t. I tried to convince them to buy nutritious foods, if not for themselves, then at least for their kids.

“Little people are great, Zybura continues. “They are honest, open, and at the preschool age, often aren’t closed to trying new foods. They aren’t prejudiced against anything yet.”

“They’ll end up healthier…”

She believes the project had immediate benefits and will aslo have a long-term impact. “One immediate benefit was that the kidss were being exposed to different types of foods and learning where they come from. They were seeing that food is not just a package on the supermarket shelf. Some kids may never have seen a fresh fruit or vegetable.

“Long term, I firmly belive that children who are exposed to things at a young benefit for years. They may go through stages where they may not, from a nutrition perspective, make the best choices, but usually as they get older they go back to they way they were taught to eat as a child.

“Get them to learn the best, or the better choices, and it will carry throughout their lives. They’ll end up helathier in the long run.”

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