Penn Students Share Nutrition and Healthy Cooking Tips With Neighbors

Ten undergraduate students from the University of Pennsylvania are enrolled in a learning experience that brings healthy ideas to the West Philadelphia community. 

Nutrition Throughout the Life Cycle,” is one of 35 academically based community service, or ABCS, courses offered this semester through the Netter Center for Community Partnerships

Held on Wednesday evenings, the class focuses on understanding and meeting nutritional needs for each stage of life, and the impact of lifestyle, education, economics and food behavior. It also allows Penn students to address real-world nutrition issues in West Philadelphia by working directly with elementary school students and seniors.

“These populations are at higher risk for certain nutrition-related diseases,” says course instructor Monique Dowd, a nutritionist who has taught at Penn for four years. “Research studies show that low-income populations are at higher risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. They also have less access to healthy food and education.”

In one-on-one sessions and group settings, Penn students use behavioral education techniques, like providing easier access to fruits and vegetables, to inform elementary school students and senior residents about their respective nutritional needs. They also teach culinary skills for healthier eating and design a nutrition education brochure for various age populations.

“This project challenges the students because they must take complex, scientific health information and simplify it for a population that may have limited literacy skills,” Dowd says. “The goal of this assignment is to make the information sustainable by offering the resources to our partners.”

For the course’s required field work component, Penn students are either assigned to the Cooking Crew or fruit stand at Comegys Elementary School, activities of the Netter Center’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, or they work with seniors at the Mercy Life Center.

On Monday afternoons, sophomore Jenny Armstrong, a Nursing major from Glen Cove, N.Y., works with a group of 20 students from Comegys Elementary as a part of its Cooking Crew, which is modeled after the Food Network’s show “Chopped.”

“Watching the kids develop leadership and organizational skills while showing creativity is something that is unique to ABCS courses like this one,” Armstrong says.

Armstrong, who has always loved learning about healthy dietary choices, says she is excited to participate in the ABCS course because knowledge is crucial when it comes to understanding good nutrition and she wanted to empower others.

“I get to practice what I am learning and work with the West Philly community, which is important to me,” she says. “It is a great experience and being in these ABCS courses is my favorite part of being a student at Penn.”

This semester, Armstrong is also enrolled in a second ABCS course, Urban Asthma Epidemic, in which Penn students examine the prevalence of asthma while co-teaching in West Philadelphia public schools sharing lessons on ways to treat the disease and identify asthma triggers.

“The Netter Center has so many great ways for students to be active partners with the surrounding community and that’s important,” says Armstrong. “The work that you do is personally rewarding but most of the benefit is working with remarkable people from West Philly.”

At the Netter Center, Jenny Bae, a 2014 Penn graduate who served as its Emerson fellow last year, now serves as the ABCS coordinator. She says that the Netter Center and its staff are excited to see the growth in the variety of courses being offered.

“The ABCS course program is committed to linking theory and practice through activities that make a significant difference in the West Philadelphia and Penn communities,” Bae says. “Students in these courses work with faculty and local organizations to help solve critical problems in a variety of areas related to the environment, health, arts and education.”

Dowd hopes that students will be able to apply theory to real life problems and make a difference in the community, long after the course has finished.

“I believe in the importance of giving back to society and the School of Nursing’s mission to ‘Care to Change the World,’” she says. “The students seem to be enjoying it so far, too.”

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