Jun 30, 2022
Juan Vazquez-Leddon
In Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, College of Human Ecology

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, pivoting to online operations became the strategy du jour for just about every industry. The leaders of a nutrition education program for children in New York City found the best way to accomplish this was to engage with the teens who taught the lessons and “move out of their way.”

The curriculum, Choose Health: Food, Fun and Fitness (CHFFF), initially developed in 2010 by Wendy Wolfe, research associate for Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, and helps youth ages 8-12 develop healthy eating habits and healthier lifestyle choices. Initially, Cornell University Cooperative Extension New York City (CUCE-NYC) leaned on teens in the city’s 4-H program to teach the curriculum (called the 4-H Choose Health Action Teens program, or CHAT) but later relied on youth in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program to teach the course.

CUCE-NYC had planned in 2020 to increase the number of sites where CHFFF was being taught, but the pandemic was taking over New York City, particularly in the Black and Hispanic communities that already experience increased health risks.

woman standing on a city sidewalk

Jackie Davis-Manigaulte, senior extension associate with CUCE-NYC. Photo: Robert Barker/Cornell University

“The communities we are committed to working with are Black and brown communities,” said Jackie Davis-Manigaulte, senior extension associate with CUCE-NYC. “They are communities that are predominately low-income, in an economically stressed food desert, or are dealing with complicated issues and challenges.”

Knowing the CHFFF program would be even more beneficial during a global health crisis, Davis-Manigaulte and her colleagues set out to offer the program online. Four students each from Cornell and City University of New York mentored a group of Police Athletic League (PAL) teen leaders who would teach the CHFFF curriculum, which they would help reshape for the virtual world.

“Because we were working with young people, we wanted to develop them as leaders; but we wanted them – and needed them – to be very involved with this creation as we were going online,” Davis-Manigaulte said during her presentation at the 2022 National Urban Extension Conference in May. “We had to kind of move out of their way and allow them to lead.”

The interns had to work quickly to redesign the in-person learning experience. They created interactive slides to teach CHFFF concepts and integrated Zoom features like a poll to foster engagement. Even though the teens were following a lesson plan, they were still able to give lessons their own twist.

“Just allowing the creativity to flow, everyone had different input levels and were very creative and brought a lot to the team,” said Dana Wheeler, former PAL director of education and program development. “Letting them take the script, let them use their own language, add music to videos, allowing everyone to contribute, it all came together in a way that was relatable for young people.”

Creativity spurred a reimagining for part of the lesson plan: following and making a healthy recipe. The group quickly decided that they would ship groceries and materials to students so they could make them at home.

“We made food kits with all of the materials and cooking supplies that they would need, along with family newsletters,” Davis-Manigaulte said. “Some of our interns developed fact sheets with information about seasonal foods and low-cost food options.”

That information, along with what kids learned in the program was much appreciated by parents during a difficult time, with kids influencing nutrition decisions in their household. Wheeler remembered comments she got from a single mother who had three children enrolled in the program: “She said, ‘I’m so thankful for this nutrition program. Now my kids are drinking way more water than juice or sodas; they’re adding more fruits and veggies to their meal. Even I’m eating better thanks to this program.’”