The city of Perris originated as an agricultural enclave, spanning 31.39 square miles. From late 1990s to earlier this decade, the population doubled to nearly 75,000 residents, transforming the city from a small community into an urbanized, diverse community. As the population grew so did the city’s obesity and diabetes rates, surpassing California’s average. Committed to improving public health, the city partnered with several agencies and launched its Chef in the Classroom program in 2013. Introduced in Perris’ elementary schools, the program enriches and transforms youth by providing nutrition education through fun and interactive cooking sessions.
Though rising rates of obesity and diabetes are widespread throughout the country, these problems are particularly troubling in Riverside County. In the city elementary schools, an alarming 47 percent of the children qualified as overweight or obese. Because many aspects of an unhealthy life-style are passed down through generations, and begin at a very early age, Perris set out to teach the youth within its schools to make healthier choices.
The Perris City Council affirmed its commitment to improving public health during its annual strategic planning process. The city started a program to put a professional chef in the classroom to educate children about the benefits of healthy eating early enough to form good habits. The goal was to impact their current and future quality of life.
City leaders realized, however, that implementing such a program would involve overcoming several challenges. While partnerships with the county and local school districts were important, the most crucial partners were the kids in the classroom; the program’s success hinged on effectively engaging these kids.
The first task was to find a chef who could communicate with youths. As discussions about putting a chef in the classroom progressed, a program began to take shape. Since the Chef in the Classroom program was new, the city established a promotion plan to reach out to students using social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the city’s website and the local public access television channel.
Recognizing that a public health situation of this magnitude required a multi-jurisdictional solution, Perris began discussions with Riverside County Department of Public Health. In late 2013, the city became a sub-grantee of Riverside County for a three-year United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, administered at the state level through the Nutrition Education Obesity Prevention Branch. The purpose of the grant was to educate low-income households about the benefits of good nutrition and physical exercise and the risks associated with poor diet and lack of exercise.
Local schools were reluctant to give up classroom time to a city-sponsored program and some initially passed over the opportunity. Convincing them that the program could fit into their structured curriculum or extracurricular activities required ongoing dedicated efforts and communication. These efforts proved to be fruitful when the city secured an agreement with two school districts and the Teaching, Helping, Inspiring, Nurturing Kids Together (THINK) program.
Ongoing discussions about the needs of the program with Chef Lee Burton proved that he was the right person for the job as he talked about the importance of learning about nutrition at an early age. The program began as a 40-class series spread over five weeks at various school sites. Each class session was designed to include a 30-minute educational component and a 30-minute interactive hands-on cooking demonstration component.
Chef Lee made the educational message simple. The interactive cooking demonstrations created enthusiasm and excitement in the classroom as students helped in the preparation of healthy recipes, by peeling oranges and bananas, mixing yogurt, folding wheat tortillas into veggie wraps and more.
Many of the children in the first round of classes lived in parts of Perris considered food deserts, sections of the city served primarily by corner markets with little or no access to fresh produce or other healthy foods. These children had little exposure to the fundamental concepts of good nutrition. As the classes progressed, the children understood the importance of eating healthy as they were preparing their own flavorful, nutritional snacks.
This program was designed to reach approximately 500 students. Chef Lee quickly became a celebrity amongst the students. This popularity resulted in other school administrators requesting the Chef in the Classroom program for their schools. At the end of the first grant year, the program held 140 classes reaching approximately 2,500 students. The program’s effectiveness of the program was measured by the number of students reached and by its strength in helping to create enduring habits of choosing healthy foods over unhealthy ones. One instrument used to measure the program’s effectiveness included youth questionnaire pre and post program participation.
The results of the assessment were encouraging, but the program’s impact was noticed when a group of students who participated in the program approached their school cafeteria staff and put in a request that a recipe they created, chickpea dip with vegetables, be added to the lunch menu. Their enthusiastic description of the class, recipe, and of instructor Chef Lee convinced the employees to pass the request up the ranks, eventually reaching the Food Services director. Impressed by the youth’s engagement, the director added the recipe and actually hired Chef Lee to develop healthy menus that were kid-approved for that school site and throughout the school district on an ongoing basis. That group of elementary school-aged students pioneered a health policy, system and environmental change for their community.
At the end of 2014, the city assessed the success of program and concluded that it met the goal of providing effective health education to young citizens. Perris’ mayor hosted a celebration lunch for students that included veggies, fruit, and as a test, chocolate chip cookies. The children passed this test, when most of them passed over the cookies to reach for mixed berries and carrot sticks to fill their plates.
Parents in the community were initially intrigued when their children came home and talked about healthy foods, claiming to have learned about health from a professional chef. As the program unfolded, the parents applauded the collaboration between the agencies and the creativity of the program. Students have asked for, and the city plans to initiate for 2015, classroom sessions based upon the popular television program “Chopped” in which students will work in groups to compete for the chance to gain the recognition of their peers and school and city officials by preparing USDA approved healthy recipes.
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.