By Rebekah Owens
In Baltimore City, like much of the world, today’s youth are in general physically inactive, have poor nutrition and have high levels of chronic stress. But we are making a difference! In a partnership with the Institute for Integrative Health, Real Food Farm and YouthWorks, “Mission Thrive Summer” was created to help improve the lives of Baltimore high school students. This program was held on an urban farm and adjacent school, and included farming, nutrition education, cooking, physical activity, yoga, mindfulness, leadership development and employment. We conducted an outcomes evaluation the program and found out that it had a meaningful impact on the health and wellness of the participants.
The outcomes evaluation included the first two consecutive summers of this ongoing program, with each six-week program beginning at 8:30am each weekday with a healthy breakfast. The students worked in “crews” of four to six and they spent two mornings a week participating in farm work and farm education and two mornings involved with nutrition education and cooking. The afternoons were filled with a combination of leadership development, physical activities, yoga, and mindfulness. Friday was an optional field trip day for activities such as hiking, canoeing, swimming and volleyball.
The farming curriculum included environmental and agricultural topics such as ecosystems and watershed, sustainable food production methods, composting, and the roles of insects. Students also learned about social, cultural and economic influences on food availability and choice and how they affect one’s health. The farming curriculum included planting, mulching, watering, weeding and harvesting, among other topics. Some of the harvested produce went toward the cooking component and some went home with the students.
The nutrition component was focused on planning healthy meals based on the USDA MyPlate guidelines. Students used the Spice MyPlate curriculum, developed by the Center for Integrative Medicine and Institute for Integrative Health, which teaches the use of spices and herbs to make healthy foods more appealing and thus encouraging consumption. The students were also taught skills such as knife safety, how to incorporate healthy foods into an established diet, how to shop for healthy foods at the grocery store and how to read and understand food labels. The curriculum was a hands-on experience that bridged food science, culinary practice and sensory outcomes.
Physical activity was a particularly effective part of the program. Pedometers registered an average of more than 7,100 steps per student per day. This part of the program included basic exercise science through fitness activities, including resistance exercise, bodyweight exercises, and plyometrics. They also participated in sports, such as soccer and basketball, as well as played games like capture the flag and participated in various forms of dance. Yoga included asanas, breath work, and meditation for stress reduction and self-calming.
During the leadership component, students received hands-on guidance focused on personal and job skills development, which included elements of financial literacy and public speaking. They also worked on team building skills by working as part of a crew, and they received regular performance feedback throughout the experience.
The program ended with two exciting events that families were invited to attend: a cooking competition and a “Health Expo.” The cooking competition consisted of a healthy meal that each crew selected and prepared then presented to judges. The judges selected the winning team based on visual presentation, recipe presentation, teamwork, creativity and taste. The Health Expo was produced by the students, advertised to the public and held at a nearby community center. Students worked in pairs to choose, research and create a learning experience for Expo attendees. Some of the topics included physical fitness, culinary knife skills, making healthy smoothies and snacks, and calculating the sugar content of sodas. A total of 215 visitors attended the Expo over the two years it was held.
The quantitative research data showed that there were numerous positive changes in healthy eating habits from the beginning to the end of the program and at a follow-up point weeks after the conclusion of the program. Students reported that they ate more vegetables and whole wheat breads and fewer hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. There was also improvement in physical activity and some improvement in perceived stress from the beginning to the end of the program.
The students told us in the qualitative outcomes collection that the program impacted their lives in many meaningful ways. A few students reported that they now grow some of their own food at home. Most said that they eat healthier now and many told us they are cooking at home and teaching their families to eat healthier, too. Some reported that they exercise at home as well and one joined a sports team at school because of Mission Thrive Summer. Students told us:
In addition to making a difference in the lives of these students, we found that the Mission Thrive Summer program is feasible for its four community partners and for African-American students in Baltimore. In other words, the program could be done again with anticipated success.
We are thrilled that we made a meaningful positive impact in the lives of these students. We look forward to working with the Institute for Integrative Health, Real Food Farm and YouthWorks to change the lives of more students in the near future!
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From the University of Maryland, Baltimore Graduate School: