By Kathleen Porter, MS, RD
Many Program in Nutrition students only know EarthFriends as a room in the basement where we have a number of our classes.
However, EarthFriends is more than a room, it’s a Program! Since the 1970s, the EarthFriends Program has educated children, teachers, and families about the whole story of food and its connections among health, personal behavior, and the environment. EarthFriends is part of Drs. Isobel Contento and Pamela Koch’s Center for Food & Environment, which focuses on behavioral nutrition research, food and fitness policy and system change, and nutrition education.
EarthFriends is currently providing after-school nutrition education every day but Tuesday to elementary-aged children through Harlem Ivy – a Teachers College-based program that supports local after-school sites. At EarthFriends, students cook, explore food, investigate the system that brings food from farm to table, and analyze their own food environment. Through these activities, students gain motivation, develop skills, and receive support to make food choices that are, in EarthFriends words, “good for our bodies and good for the planet.” This fall, students are doing a modified version of the Food Day School Curriculum lessons. These lessons focus on the following behaviors: eat real, mostly plants, not too much, navigate the environment, and be an advocate.
EarthFriends educators also work in the field. We provide sessions at Harlem RBI in East Harlem, throughout the school year and during the summer. We also provide special weekend workshops for local organizations, such as Saturday workshops at the Union Square Farmers’ Market.
In addition to providing nutrition education, we also conduct small research projects, such as mini-program evaluations. We are starting a project with the Harlem Ivy students to understand how they describe the Food Day lesson behaviors, what motivates them to want to do those behaviors, what skills they use to do these behaviors, and how they bring these behaviors into their every day lives. What we learn from this qualitative study will help us improve the instruments we use to assess the impact EarthFriends lessons have on students’ thoughts and behaviors and, therefore, will strengthen our ability to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.
The Program in Nutrition students are involved with the EarthFriends Program. Students volunteer during after school classes, and students with EarthFriends experience can become EarthFriends educators. Students also help write EarthFriends lessons, and are part of our research team by collecting, entering, and analyzing data. This academic year, there are about ten students actively involved in EarthFriends teaching, and another three in research projects. Students often use these activities as their master’s degree theses.