College of Public Health builds healthy eating habits in rural schools


Michael Guhin

Professor Natoshia Askelson poses for a portrait in the College of Public Health on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.

Jordan Prochnow, News Reporter

The University of Iowa College of Public Health is making strides to give K-12 students healthier meal options in their lunchrooms, particularly in rural school districts.

The Healthy Schools/Healthy Students program is nationally administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is overseen in Iowa by the Public Health College. The program’s goal is to implement strategies that aim to reduce childhood obesity, provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students who may not have access to healthy foods, and start healthy eating habits at a young age.

A group of UI students and researchers has worked with 30 schools across Iowa —  10 elementary, 10 middle, and 10 high schools — in two-year cycles since 2013. The program will conclude in May 2019.

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Natoshia Askelson, a UI assistant professor of community and behavioral health who oversees the program, said the school interventions try to change elements of lunchrooms to make healthy choices easy and fun.

“The most recent intervention was with elementary-school students who had a nutrition education component in the classrooms and lunchrooms and have cafeteria coaches,” Askelson said. “Older students from high schools came down and ate lunch with elementary-school students to coach them and [engage in] good eating to provide good role models.”

The program focuses on two components: one directly in lunchrooms, and the other in fourth-grade classrooms using Serving Up My Plate, an education curriculum.

The curriculum focuses on the importance of eating well-rounded meals from each food group while offering interactive activities to keep students engaged. In the lunchrooms, program leaders work on improving food quality, redesigning cafeterias to improve healthy eating, and making nutritious food more available so that students will feel more comfortable making healthy choices.

Team Nutrition, an initiative of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, supports child nutrition programs throughout school systems. Currently, there are two Team Nutrition grants in the state of Iowa: one focuses on child care, and the other focuses on promoting healthy eating and nutrition education in schools.

Carrie Scheidel, the Team Nutrition co-director at the Iowa Department of Education, said it is important to provide students with the ability to have feedback on their meal options because they can become advocates for their health.

“Students who participate in school-meal programs can get up to half of their calories each day at school,” she said. “It’s important that schools offer a variety of fruits and vegetables and entrée options that students enjoy.”

UI graduate research assistant Patrick Brady, who works on the program with Askelson, said it is important for students in rural areas to have access to healthy food options because their access may be limited, with fewer suppliers to choose from.

“Rural areas are more affected by unhealthy eating,” Brady said. “There are different barriers to getting healthier food options, so this program gives rural areas a better opportunity for healthier options to hopefully build better habits.”