How Nutrition Data Can Be Used to Give Kids a Healthy Start

With Nestlé for Healthier Kids, Nestlé, Rutgers, and the YMCA are empowering New Jersey parents with a research-backed curriculum and a network of nurturing peer educators

Stacey Ragin aims to make busy parents’ lives easier — and healthier — by teaching nutrition classes to parents in Newark, New Jersey. During her courses, offered as part of Nestlé’s Start Healthy, Stay Healthy program, she lays out the benefits of breastfeeding, provides tips for managing picky eaters, and makes suggestions for healthy snacks.

Though she brings her own flair to the classes, the foundation for her work is a scientific, research-backed curriculum. Now, thanks to a partnership with Nestlé and the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance, parents in five New Jersey communities will have access to these free nutrition classes, helping to put more families on a path to good health.

The Start Healthy, Stay Healthy program — piloted in 2014 as a collaboration between Nestlé and Rutgers University — offers parents evidence-based nutrition information. It focuses on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life — a period that research shows is most critical for cultivating healthy development. The course is taught by peer educators to help ensure the program is sustainable and hyper-local, serving the unique needs of diverse communities. The program aims to help kids develop healthy, nutritious eating habits that they will have for the rest of their lives.

Stacey says the program has done that and more.

“This type of program — especially for our teen parents — helps change generations. Often teen parents live with their parents, so we have at least three, maybe even four generations, in the home together talking about nutrition,” she says.

Chef Matthew teaches our junior chefs to make energy balls with oats and fruit

Data-Driven Curriculum

The Start Healthy, Stay Healthy program was launched, in part, as a response to a 2010 study that showed Newark had a childhood obesity rate three times the national average. We decided to apply Nestlé’s research and data on children’s eating habits to the burgeoning obesity problem in Newark.

Nestlé’s Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) provides just that type of data, illuminating the gaps in children’s nutritional intakes. The study, which is the largest of its kind, audits the daily eating and drinking habits of children four years old and younger, providing timely and important insights.

Using FITS, we were able to identify areas in which parents needed more information about their children’s nutrition. From there, we developed a curriculum based on the best available nutrition research. For instance, FITS showed nearly 1 in 3 kids are picky eaters. Parents of these children were concerned, so we included tips for managing picky eaters in our curriculum, drawing on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and leading academics.

Peer Educators Make It Local

We also understood that though the curriculum we helped craft could inform local thinking, the approach needed to be community based and community directed. A one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition education would not work, as communities have distinct personalities and needs. That being the case, our peer educators take the research-based curriculum and bring it to life. What we’ve found, and celebrated, is that each class has a distinct flavor.

In Jillian Faulks-Majuta’s class, the instructor relied on open-ended questions, so the diverse group of parents from many different cultures could learn from one another.

“We had people from Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Nigeria. So, we were able to have inputs on herbs and spices from all the regions of the world,” Jillian says.

Photo Courtesy of YMCA NJ State Alliance

Using peer educators also makes the program sustainable. They become ambassadors for good health, whether in casual conversations with neighbors or as the voices of nutrition within their own families. Ultimately, the community takes total ownership of the program, continuing to customize the curriculum and structure for their needs.

Going Back to the Data Again

As with any pilot program, we are measuring our progress to make sure our approach is working — and the results indicate it is. In one study, we gave each student a test before classes even began. Six months after completing the course, they were given the same test. The students not only remembered the class lessons, even six months after completion, but they were applying the nutrition curriculum in their lives.

The expansion of the program into other New Jersey communities will tell us even more, as we are incorporating suburban and rural communities. With this next chapter, we’re looking forward to learning more and more, gaining an even greater understanding of how we can work within these communities to change lives for the better.

Our work produced one more notable benefit: Although we had set out to build an educational program, it turned out to be the start of support networks, too. Participants now help each other in ways we never imagined, forming bonds, helping one another problem solve, and encouraging one another to embrace healthy choices.

Lynella George, a Start Healthy, Stay Healthy volunteer, described seeing one mom, who had breastfed all eight of her children, persuade another expecting mom to breastfeed.

“Because of that trust,” Lynella says, “That mom was able to make a healthy decision for herself and her child that was the best for their family and needs.”