What are sixth-graders interested in these days? “Cooking!” “Growing food!” “Learning how to be healthier.” “Exercising.” “Meeting new friends!” These enthusiastic answers came from sixth-grade student leaders in Santa Maria, Calif., when asked by educators from the UC Cooperative Extension Youth, Families and Communities program in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Through an integrated youth-focused healthy living project, called Food Smart Families, funded by National 4-H, the UC ANR 4-H Youth Development Program, and the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education program, 32 fourth- through sixth-grade student leaders were brought together from three schools in Santa Maria, Calif., for a full-day educational retreat that focused on engaging youth to explore their healthy lifestyle interests and see themselves as leaders.
Throughout the day, student leaders experienced physical activity games, learned cooking skills, participated in garden-based learning, and developed their presentation skills. They focused on skill development, as well as transference so that the student leaders could take these activities into their own schools to encourage and teach their peers. For example, the fun physical activity breaks that were incorporated throughout the day modeled games where no one is “out” or excluded, while moving enough to get heart rates up.
In the garden, student leaders learned the basics of growing food and how to lead a garden lesson. Students discussed garden tools and how to use them safely, then planted their own seeds to take home. The garden session ended with a gleaning of the school citrus orchard where students laughed and enjoyed the fresh air and fresh fruits growing around them. In their own school gardens, the student leaders have offered lessons and tastings to their peers.
By the end of the retreat, the student leaders were excited to take the information and skills back to their schools and start leading. Students shared their plans to help other students be more active during recess, be healthy, and help other kids be healthier too.
“This was the best day I have ever had,” said one of the students.
Through the efforts of the Food Smart Families program, the Youth, Families, & Communities program in San Luis Obispo & Santa Barbara counties merged the strengths of the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education program and the UC ANR 4-H Youth Development program to provide new opportunities and experiences for students in this community. With interested and caring adults, these student leaders learned to share their passions for cooking, gardening, and healthy lifestyle with their peers at school and others in their community. The rewards for the school, community and adult allies continue to expand as these inspired student leaders, with strong mentorship and support, take on some of the biggest challenges facing our society and world.