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Improving youths’ nutritional knowledge and skills by discovering healthy choices

The Issue

The dietary behaviors of children and adolescents in the United States are a major public health concern. Children and adolescents are not consuming enough nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, and many of these youth do not meet the recommended amounts of nutrients such as fiber, calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D. The prevalence of childhood obesity is also a concern, with approximately 32 percent of youth, ages 2 to 19, overweight or obese.

School programs that integrate instruction on nutrition and physical activity, and promote changes in the school environment (e.g., access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria), along with parental and community involvement are effective strategies to improve children’s and adolescents’ dietary behaviors. Furthermore, including garden-based activities at school helps improve nutrition knowledge and vegetable food preferences.

However, classroom-based nutrition interventions must support mandated state and national education standards in order to be readily adopted.

What Has ANR Done?

UC Cooperative Extension specialists in nutrition and youth scientific literacy worked with graduate and undergraduate students, and the director of the School Gardening Program to develop a garden-based nutrition curriculum for the school-based Shaping Healthy Choices Program (SHCP). The Discovering Healthy Choices curriculum utilizes inquiry-based approaches and experiential learning. The lessons help youth understand nutrition concepts (e.g., how nutrients support and maintain health) and learn to make evidence-based food choices (e.g., comparing food labels). The program includes hands-on garden-based activities and addresses California Common Core State Standards in math and language arts.

The research team worked with nutrition, family, and consumer science advisors in Sacramento and Stanislaus counties to implement Discovering Healthy Choices to 300 fourth-grade youth in two schools. This included garden design and construction, instruction of youth in the classroom and in the garden, and take-home family extension activities.

The Payoff

Youth's nutrition knowledge improves with Discovering Healthy Choices

Students who participated in Discovering Healthy Choices activities as part of the SHCP demonstrated a measurable increase in nutrition knowledge. The curriculum is currently under review by the California Department of Education, Healthy Kids Resource Center and will be made available to elementary schools, the UC CalFresh Program, and the California 4-H Youth Development Program.

Clientele Testimonial

“I now know how to read a nutrient label. I even learned how to make new foods.” – Fourth-grade student
“Our family is trying to eat healthier by cooking dinner ourselves.” – Fourth-grade student


Supporting Unit: Youth, Families & Communities - 4-H

Jessica Linnell, Department of Nutrition, UC Davis, 530-752-3387
Martin Smith, Departments of Population Health and Reproduction, and Human Ecology, UC Davis, 530-752-6894 or 530-752-7035
Carol Hillhouse, Agriculture Sustainability Institute, UC Davis, 530-752-7033
Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, Department of Nutrition, UC Davis, 530-752-3817
The Shaping Healthy Choices Team