Photos courtesy of Camille Sullivan




SPOKANE – With award-winning employees and almost 20 years experience, WSU’s Food $ense program helps educate thousands of low-income families about maintaining affordable, healthy diets.

The WSU Extension Food $ense nutrition education program partners with schools and community agencies to teach youth and adults with limited incomes skills and behaviors to eat healthfully and maximize the value of their food dollars and food assistance benefits. Food $ense complements federal food assistance programs by providing experiential education that builds food shopping, preparation and cooking skills people need to provide themselves and their families with nutritious, low-cost and safe food.

WSU Extension has contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program, USDA-Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, and more than 600 community agencies to conduct Food $ense nutrition education since 1991.

Since 2002, a team of 18 Food $ense educators has served 43 different schools in seven school districts in Spokane County. One of those educators is an award-winning graduate student at WSU.


Whole Grain Heroes

In August, Mike Lynch – who holds a bachelor’s degree in fitness and exercise science and recently completed his master’s degree in exercise physiology and metabolism with a minor in nutrition at WSU – won Food Management magazine’s Best Concept Awards Best Promotion for his Whole Grain Heroes initiative in Spokane School District 81.

Lynch said he created the campaign as co-founder and camp counselor of Camp Stix – a summer camp in northeastern Washington for children and teens throughout the Northwest with diabetes – to promote eating whole grains at every meal. He said rewarding kids with T-shirts proclaiming them “Whole Grain Heroes” was a fun and exciting way to promote healthy eating.

“With the obesity epidemic, lack of (nutritional) knowledge and lack of experience, food education is so important these days,” Lynch said. He said his approach to the school children wasn’t, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ “Instead we made it fun for the kids,” he said.

Spokane Public Schools adapted Lynch’s brainchild into a week-long competition where participants completed Whole Grain Hero contracts and then recorded the number of whole grain items consumed. The class at each elementary school with the highest percentage of students recording a whole grain item consumed each day earned Whole Grain Hero T-shirts at the end of the week. At the middle and high schools, winners were drawn at random from a pool of participants who completed their contracts.

The Spokane schools nutritional services also promoted the campaign by serving more whole grain menu items. Considering that – to qualify for Food $ense classes – at least 50 percent of a school’s student population must qualify for free or reduced school lunches, the cafeteria menu plays a significant role in promoting a healthy diet for many students.

Lynch said it is a joy to see kids all over Spokane wearing their Whole Grain Hero T-shirts.

Although Food $ense was not involved with the award-winning Whole Grain Heroes initiative, Lynch said he hopes to find ways Food $ense can piggyback on the concept and partner with Spokane Public Schools on more creative, food-specific campaigns.


Educating youth


Food $ense educators hold bachelor’s degrees in teaching, dietetics, exercise physiology, community health, human development and related areas of study. They generally teach a series of six one-hour classes in primary and secondary schools.

Since February, Lynch has worked for Food $ense as a nutrition educator at Spokane’s Bancroft School, an alternative school for grades 4-12. Using a hands-on approach, he teaches youth about food safety, nutrition benefits and life skills that promote healthy lifestyles. 

He integrates games such as Jeopardy, ring toss and crosswords into his curriculum to teach nutritional facts. He then has students apply their knowledge by making simple, accessible and healthful dishes and snacks.

Lynch said the youth he works with often come from troubled backgrounds and do not have many positive adult role models. He said the relationships he builds with them help him make a positive impact on their lifestyle choices.

“People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care,” Lynch said. “In general, I can feel a positive impact of this program in this kind of population.”

Camille Sullivan, senior coordinator of Food $ense Spokane County Extension, said though it is difficult to measure behavior change, especially in youth, pre- and post-class tests show an increased knowledge of the USDA food pyramid categories and its serving sizes.

Furthermore, in May, 80 percent of youth in grades 1-3 from Madison Elementary who had never consumed fresh green salad before attending Food $ense classes reported they would try green salad again. After classes, teachers of grades K-4 reported that up to 95 percent of their students tried or finished their fruits and vegetables each day. And 90 percent of teachers reported students did so because they understood the food’s nutritional value.


Food $ense for adults


Sullivan said Food $ense partners with criminal justice centers, food banks, food stamp offices, YMCA and other community service agencies in Spokane County. They offer nutrition classes, food preparation activities and recipes to encourage adults with limited income to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Studies show that the rise in childhood illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol have doomed the current generation to be the first to have children with shorter life expectancies than their parents.

Sullivan said that while the program provides youths with guidelines for behaviors – increase consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, low-fat dairy as well as increase the amount of daily physical activity – it is also important to educate adults how to cook healthy meals on a tight budget to steer them away from processed food and fast food.

Because the people Food $ense works with have limited incomes, money is a factor in their food selection decisions, Sullivan said.

“Research shows children can influence the purchase behavior of their parent,” she said, “but the parent ultimately does the shopping, makes the food, makes the choices. Unfortunately, it is much cheaper to go to the local convenience store and buy a hot dog and bag of chips than it is to go to the grocery store and buy fresh ingredients for a salad. …Our goal is to open up a whole new world of eating and behaving.”

Since 2004, Food $ense has partnered with Spokane’s Second Harvest, a food distribution agency serving 26 counties in eastern Washington and northern Idaho through its 275 food banks, soup kitchens and senior meal programs. An estimated 60-70 percent of Second Harvest’s donated food is perishable.

Rod Wieber, chief resource officer of Second Harvest, said the program’s Rachel Ray-like cooking demonstrations, recipe ideas and tips to extend food’s shelf-life reached nearly 7,000 participants through 261 classes at neighborhood food banks last year. 

For example, a Food $ense educator would conduct a class on how to cook a simple chicken casserole. Then he or she would discuss the meal’s nutritional value as well as how to use the rest of the chicken carcass to make low-cost chicken noodle soup.

Wieber said the classes were so popular that some locations had to conduct several per day to accommodate the large number of participants.

“This program has garnered a lot of attention at food banks where classes are offered,” Wieber said. “People who go continue to go, and they tell their friends about it.”

Wieber said the partnership especially has helped people struggling with job loss and limited savings in the current economy. As the number of people relying on food banks continues to grow, so should the services food banks provide, and that is what Food $ense is helping to do, he said.


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