This fall, 65 Georgia Southern students in the senior-level Community Nutrition class are teaching the public about healthful eating through venues such as the Main Street Farmers Market, the Food Bank and the WIC program.
Dr. Padmini Shankar, an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences who teaches the course, has been involved in service learning projects for years, but this semester she has more help than ever.
Ashley Harper, a senior completing a Bachelor of Science in nutrition and food science, is assisting Shankar with planning and scheduling the service learning campaign. They also are applying for grants available within the university.
Harper is one of six student facilitators selected in a pilot program of the university's Office of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement. Distributed among five of the university's undergraduate colleges, they are documenting this semester's projects to serve as models for an expanded student facilitator program slated for fall 2012.
"We've done a lot of service learning. ... We always have things going on," Shankar said. "But we've never had such a concerted effort as we have now from the Office of Student Leadership. I've never had a student assist me before, but Ashley is a tremendous help."
Together, they have drawn up a calendar that has each of the 65 students meeting the public twice in October and November. For one such learning experience, students will work in teams of four. For the other, they will work individually.
For each one-day public appearance they will spend hours creating recipe books, menus, posters, marketing flyers and newspaper and radio public service announcements.
Their basic message could be boiled down to "Eat your fruits and vegetables." As Shankar explains, consuming more plant-based foods could help Georgians with three prevalent chronic health problems: heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
"This is something all of us are aware of, that children and adults don't eat adequate amounts of vegetables and fruits, and there is enough research to say that vegetables and fruits are very protective when it comes to chronic diseases," Shankar said.
Rural Georgia's agricultural output doesn't make it an exception. Shankar says that only 30 percent of the state's population get their recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Some rural areas, she notes, have been called "food deserts" where poor people have little access to fresh food. Portions of Bulloch County are identified as food deserts on a U.S. Department of Agriculture map.
But the Community Nutrition class is touting the Main Street Farmers Market as a rich local resource while also using it as a venue for reaching the public. Student teams are scheduled to appear at the market on five consecutive Saturdays beginning Oct. 8. Topics include eating well while spending less, cooking with locally grown vegetables and fruits, and planning a menu around seasonal ingredients.
Sustainability Week at Georgia Southern, Oct. 17-22, will bring a rush of Community Nutrition projects, Harper said. The Farmers Market will make a special on-campus appearance Tuesday, Oct. 18.
"We want to help promote that they're going to be here so that students can also find out that they can buy these healthy fruits and vegetables and learn how to use these rather than going to the vending machine," Harper said.
A downtown Sustainability Fair at the Main Street Market's regular Saturday location will cap Sustainability Week on Oct. 22.
On various market days, Community Nutrition students will staff a stand featuring a specific fruit or vegetable. Another class will help by preparing a dish featuring the food item, Shankar said. Students will offer samples to draw in people, then talk to them about food costs and health benefits while passing out recipes and other printed information.
The Food Bank Inc. provides the class another venue. During Monday evening distributions, students will give demonstrations targeted to controlling and preventing heart disease and diabetes.
Students may demonstrate cooking a dish such as vegetarian chili with the dried beans that are often included in Food Bank packages, Shankar said. She calls beans "one of the powerhouses of food" but says that people often don't know how to prepare them.
By "going meatless" a few times each week, families can reduce their saturated fat and cholesterol intake while eating more plant-based foods that are rich in disease preventing nutrients, she said.
Community Nutrition students also are preparing a "Healthy Lunch Box Project" to show parents how to pack colorful fruits and vegetables into their children's lunches.
They are working with the Health Department on a effort to reach mothers who receive WIC food vouchers.
Meanwhile, Harper is compiling documents about the all these projects in a big binder.
"It's my responsibility to put together a notebook of what works so that next semester I can give this to another student, who can take this info to their class and easily be able to implement student facilitated learning," she said.
Harper is president of the Student Dietetic Association, a group that plans activities of its own, on and off campus.
The six student facilitators in the pilot program were selected for their demonstrated leadership, organization, knowledge of their field and enthusiasm, said Wendy Denton, assistant director for service learning in the Office of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement.
The College of Business, College of Science and Technology, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and College Education are each assigned one student facilitator. The College of Health and Human Sciences has two.
More student facilitators, ranging from sophomores to seniors, will be trained in the spring. Meanwhile, the office will be applying for funding from the university to launch the program full-scale in fall 2012.
Denton hopes to have 15-20 students ready. They will be paid a stipend.
"What we're finding that faculty want very much to do this kind of experiential learning," Denton said. "They want their students out there in the community contributing and having these kinds of experiences, but it's very time consuming, and having a student facilitator who can carry some of this burden is very appealing to our faculty members."