When Erika Graham learned her husband had been diagnosed with diabetes, she was thankful for the information she learned through the Community Nutrition Education Programs that taught her about the impact healthy eating has on a person’s health.
Graham, assistant director at Children of Joy Learning Academy, a family-run business in Lawton, Oklahoma, said the information she received from the nutrition education assistant who taught the classes was extremely valuable.
“We have had the nutrition education assistant here to teach about healthy eating to our teachers and to our students between the ages of 6 and 12,” Graham said. “This program has really helped all of us make better food choices, incorporate more fresh foods into our diets and become more physically active.”
Many of the educational programs offered through Oklahoma State University Extension provide opportunities for hands-on learning, and Community Nutrition Education Programs is no exception. CNEP, funded through two USDA grants, encompasses two programs: the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed). Currently available in 30 counties with 44 nutrition education assistants teaching and sharing the research-based information, CNEP’s goal is to provide nutrition education to limited-resource individuals and families across the state. Menu planning and stretching a family’s food budget also are core components of the class, along with physical activity, cooking at home and food safety. CNEP encompasses both adult and youth programs that can be taught on an individual or classroom basis.
Candy Gabel, OSU Extension associate specialist and state coordinator for CNEP, said the programs reached nearly 18,000 people.
“When you look at the overall health of Oklahomans, research shows 36% of Oklahoma adults are obese, 35% of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are overweight or obese, 45% of adults eat less than one serving of fruit per day and only 9% of high school students eat vegetables three or more times a day,” Gable said. “There is definitely room for improvement, and programs like CNEP can help.”
Graham said she is especially appreciative of the information that has helped her stretch her food budget.
“My husband requires different medications for his illness, which can be expensive,” she said. “What I’ve learned through CNEP has really helped me with meal planning, which in turn helps with my food budget. Planning meals and making my grocery list around those meals helps keep me on track when shopping and helps avoid impulse buying.”
Diana Romano, OSU Extension assistant specialist, oversees CNEP’s adult programs. She said classes typically are taught in person, either individually or in groups, but for the last several months the NEAs have been teaching lessons virtually using Zoom, Facebook live, Google Duo and YouTube, as well as over the telephone because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not all parts of rural Oklahoma have reliable internet service.
“Our NEAs are calling participants to check in to see how they’re doing and if they need information about any other resources in their communities,” she said. “The participants appreciate the NEAs’ knowledge of their local communities because they can connect them with other agencies that can bring services to their homes.”
Jenni Klufa, OSU Extension assistant specialist, heads up the youth component of CNEP. She said research shows healthy behaviors of children are associated with higher academic achievement.
“The CNEP Youth Program includes a variety of nutrition education offerings focusing on improving healthy behaviors of Oklahoma children,” Klufa said. “Our goal is to give youth the best chance at academic success while also encouraging healthy habits they can use for the rest of their lives.
“One thing that affects every single person throughout their life is nutrition. Yet, many people aren’t given the opportunity to understand basic nutrition,” she said. “It’s important for kids to know the facts about food and nutrition. Through CNEP, we not only teach children about healthy eating, we also empower them with vital life skills such as preparing safe, healthy meals. Research shows children who are involved in preparing meals are more likely to eat more nutrient-rich foods.”
Graham said she is thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in CNEP and is certain the program has helped both the teachers and children at the learning academy.
“I know our children at Children of Joy Learning Academy enjoyed the lessons when the NEAs were here to teach them. They like the cooking and being able to eat what they fixed,” Graham said. “The kids definitely talked about the program once they got home because we had several parents ask us for more information about it. I highly recommend CNEP to anyone, especially young mothers or those who are dealing with an illness and want to learn how to eat healthy. This program truly makes a difference.”