The University of Mississippi’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management has a motto: “Changing the culture of obesity—one child at a time.” For Kathy Knight, UM associate professor and interim chair of the department, the motivation to improve nutrition education in Mississippi public schools comes not only from knowing that the state has one of the country’s highest childhood obesity rates, but also from a deep sense of pride for her home state.
“Being close to the land is something that’s rooted deep within our culture as Mississippians, and yet we’re getting away from that,” Knight said. One of the answers to improving nutrition, she said, lies in teaching children how to make healthier choices, such as choosing real fruit over fruit-flavored snacks.
Since fall 2008, Knight has been carrying out projects in elementary schools in four small Mississippi towns: Clarksdale, Mound Bayou, Lambert and Pope. A multifaceted effort under the umbrella program “Eating Good … And Moving Like We Should,” the work began by helping schools respond to new health policy mandates from the Mississippi Office of Healthy Schools. The work is funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Janie Cole helps create a school garden.
Kathy Knight assists a student working in a school garden.
“Our registered dietitian and our certified health educator go into the schools and actually teach nutrition. Nothing substitutes for that registered dietitian or health educator being up there in front of the kids, and the children having access to them so that they can ask questions,” Knight said.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Janie Cole, the project’s registered dietitian. “The age we’re working with is third-graders. They’re so young, and they want to do things right. If you’re telling them about healthier choices, they want to do what’s good for them.”
Besides working directly in the classroom, Knight and her colleagues have overseen the creation of school gardens with help from UM Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management students. The gardens, which are used to grow vegetables and herbs for tasting purposes, provide a novel and thrilling experience for many students.
The program has also hosted healthy cooking classes at the Boys & Girls Club in Batesville and installed teacher fitness facilities in Mound Bayou, including yoga mats, a TV and exercise videos. Knight and Lacy Dodd, the program’s project coordinator, also helped Mound Bayou write a grant proposal for a walking track, which the school received.
“Each school has its own style,” Knight said. “What we want to do is go into the schools and see what they are doing, what is helping and where they need some help, and then work with the administrators and teachers in that school to help them achieve their wellness goals.”
The program has shown results, including a leveling-off in students’ body mass indices. Knight, Cole and Dodd also collected fitness data from a push-up test, running test and a sit-and-reach test. Research shows that those measures are linked not only to physical health but also to school performance.
“There has been research about how flexible a child is and how that relates to academic performance,” Dodd said. “Reinforcing health will help improve the children academically.”
Beyond “Eating Good … And Moving Like We Should,” the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management participates in several initiatives to improve health in the state, such as helping the UM Athletic Association with a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee initiative called “Move SEC.” The UM Nutrition Clinic offers consultations to anyone in the area seeking information related to weight management, diabetes, sports nutrition, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, eating disorders, breastfeeding and special genetic disorders. Knight believes the clinic can help the people of Mississippi become—and stay—healthier.
“Part of our mission is to improve the lives of Mississippians,” Knight said. “What is more important in your life than your health? As a native Mississippian, I feel a real obligation to the people of Mississippi, and hopefully the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management can help in making them healthier.”