When Miss Gabbie comes to visit the kindergarteners at Paul V. Fly Elementary School in Norristown, Pa., the children know they’re in for a treat — literally.
Miss Gabbie is Gabriella Rovito, a Master of Public Health student who has been visiting the children since October as part of her Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to teach them about healthy habits related to nutrition. Every other week, Miss Gabbie visits five classrooms and gives a lesson on healthy eating, followed by a taste-test of the food she’s just discussed.
“Childhood obesity is rampant among young children, and research has shown that healthy eating habits develop early in life,” said Rovito. “The goal is to introduce children to healthy foods in hopes that their preferences will carry over into the home.”
And so far, it seems to be working. Lauren Zibelman, a kindergarten teacher at Paul V. Fly, says that several parents have told her that their children are now trying healthier foods at home.
“I’ve had several e-mails and phone calls from parents asking about Gabbie’s lessons and for the recipes so they can make the food again at home,” she said.
After each lesson, Rovito provides the children with a flyer to take home to parents that includes information about what the children have learned, along with a recipe and nutritional tips.
“Something as simple as texture can put a child off of wanting to eat a healthy food,” said Rovito. “And you need to try something 5-10 times to determine whether you’ll like it or not.”
To overcome such obstacles, Rovito says she tries to package healthy foods in a form that’s familiar to the students — such as making frozen yogurt look like an ice cream sundae, complete with a craisin “cherry” on top.
“The children love it when Miss Gabbie comes to visit,” said Zibelman. “They look forward to sharing everything they know about healthy eating with her, and they display such a sense of pride whenever they have the chance to share during her lessons.”
Before the children went on holiday break, Rovito hosted “Cooking in the Classroom,” where children donned chefs hats and made their own yogurt parfaits, complete with fresh fruit. She’s planning another event before the children leave for spring break.
Rovito based her curriculum on the Kindergarten Initiative (KI), a program run through The Food Trust in Philadelphia, where she was an intern for several years. The KI program stipulates that in order to participate, a school must meet the requirements for the SNAP-ED program, an extension of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides schools with nutrition education. This was the first year that Paul V. Fly was not eligible, so Rovito elected to use her funding from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation to extend it for another year.
“Through the Food Trust, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Paul V. Fly before, and I knew their time for the KI program was running out,” said Rovito. “And there’s no line for kids who need an education on nutrition; obesity is a nationwide problem that transcends race, economics and a number of other factors.”
Zibelman, a kindergarten teacher for the past 7 years, said she has seen first hand the effects of instilling good habits early on.
“Introducing healthy choices as early as possible helps them become a natural way of life, rather than something that has to be done,” she said.
After the program wraps up in May, Rovito will compare her exit data to baseline information to see if the children’s attitudes toward and knowledge about healthy foods has improved. She also plans to hold focus groups with teachers to learn more about what they’ve observed over the school year.
“Telling a child why vegetables are better for them won’t do much to change their behavior,” she said. “But if you engage them and have them become familiar with the foods you’re talking about, it makes it more personal for them, and there’s a better chance of making the message stick.”
The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is awarded to individuals who are dedicated to meeting the health needs of underserved populations by partnering with community-based organizations to develop and implement yearlong, mentored service projects. Rovito joins a legacy of Temple Schweitzer Fellows from the College of Health Professions and Social Work, the School of Medicine and the School of Podiatric Medicine.