Writer: Paul Schattenberg, 210-859-5752, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contacts: Oscar Zamora, 956-399-4015, Oscar.Zamora@ag.tamu.edu
Melissa DeLeon, 956-383-5721, Melissa.DeLeon@ag.tamu.edu
SAN BENITO/EDINBURG – This summer, low-income and underserved children in the Lower Rio Grande Valley received a healthy snack and lunch along with a side order of nutrition at camps set up to feed their bodies and minds.
At the Play and Learn Day Care Center in San Benito every Tuesday and Thursday in July, about 40 youth received free meals and nutrition education during their summer vacation.
“This was the second year the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and others presented this youth summer camp in this area,” said Oscar Zamora, AgriLife Extension agent for EFNEP in Cameron and Willacy counties.
The summer camp was designed to assist limited-resource audiences in acquiring the knowledge, skills, attitudes and changed behaviors necessary for nutritionally sound diets, he said.
“It also contributes to their personal development and the improvement of the entire family’s diet and nutritional well-being,” Zamora said
During the summer camp, participants were given healthy snacks between 9:30-10 a.m. and fed a nutritious lunch from 11:30 a.m.-noon. In between, they were instructed on a variety of topics having to do with healthy living, including hygiene, exercise, healthy eating and other health-related topics.
“This included participating in lessons like Exploring My Plate with Professor Popcorn, which was developed with curriculum by Purdue University Extension and adapted by AgriLife Extension specialists in family and consumer sciences and 4-H youth development,” Zamora said.
In Hidalgo County during July and August, EFNEP also held its third annual Summer Foods, Summer Meals Youth Camp collaborative community outreach program at the AgriLife Extension office in Hidalgo County. The camp consisted of outdoor fun and educational activities in addition to providing nourishing meals to participants.
“We had over 32 community sponsors that helped provide prizes, school supplies and backpacks to our 55 kids, including 19 pairs of tennis shoes were given to underserved kids that attended the camp this year in Edinburg,” said Melissa DeLeon, AgriLife Extension agent for EFNEP in Hidalgo County.
DeLeon said some of the educational activities included a presentation on how to tie-dye t-shirts, a presentation from local police officers on safety and identification cards for the youths, financial literacy and horticulture-related instruction. The children were also given a presentation on the importance of technology and the future opportunities in learning, including a hands-on program coding activity.
“Under the direction of Hidalgo County 4-H agent Kimberly Guillen, 4-H program assistant Monica Flores conducted an ‘Ice Cream In A Bag’ activity in which participants learned why we need calcium in our diet,” DeLeon said. “They were given a demonstration on how to make ice cream in a bag and were given copies of the recipe to share with their families. Everyone ate and enjoyed their ice cream within minutes of making it from scratch.”
DeLeon said during the summer it is difficult for many low-income children to get transportation to community summer meals sites.
“Many children in rural communities live miles from sites and in urban communities, they may have to contend with unsafe streets, traffic and inaccessible or nonexistent public transportation,” she said. “As a result, summer can be the hungriest time for many children, especially those in low-income families.”
She said the camp helped address 2015 South Region Texas Community Future Forum issues identified for Hidalgo County relative to child nutrition, food security, youth health and wellness, sustainable food systems and family life.
“In 2014, there were 94,970 food insecure people in Hidalgo County,” she said. “In 2013-2014 more than 2.3 million Texas students received a free or reduced-price lunch at school and 1.3 million Texas students got a free or reduced-price breakfast. However, there are still many children who go without breakfast.
About 24 percent of Texas residents are considered food insecure, and that’s especially true in poor communities here in South Texas, Zamora added. He said the target audience for EFNEP participation is households with young children and low-income youth living in rural or urban areas.
“Part of the agency’s community outreach is to provide youth with food while out of school as well as to educate them about good nutrition and healthy living,” he said. “We not only feed their bodies, we feed their minds. We educate them about good food choices, proper nutrition and the need for physical activity. We also let them know that a healthy lifestyle will help them academically and with athletics, and serve them for a lifetime.”
He said another benefit is children involved in these camps and other EFNEP nutrition education efforts often share what they have learned with their families.
“We’ve had a lot of parents come to us after these nutrition education events and say their kids have told them they should eat more healthful foods, including more fruits and vegetables,” he said.
Zamora said data from before and after surveys of youth involved in his EFNEP programs showed 86 percent improved their ability to choose healthy foods. They also showed youth participants significantly improved their food handling practices and ability to prepare simple, nutritious and affordable foods, plus increased their amount of physical activity.
DeLeon added EFNEP strives to provide “quality research education to both adults and youths on topics related to dietary quality, food resource management, food safety and physical activity, helping improve the lives of adults and their families.”