FEED lab

Adults interacting with children at ECU’s Nancy W. Darden Child Development Center in September of 2019.

East Carolina University professors from the Department of Nutrition Science and the Department of Human Development and Family Science, as well as a graduate student from the Food Based Early Education lab (FEEd), have completed a study on the correlation between how pre-kindergarten teacher’s personal views on healthy behaviors impact their students and look forward to an article in the Journal of Extension.

Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition Science and Director of the Food Based Early Education Lab Virginia Stage said the journal for the study, which took place from 2016 to 2017, was just recently published in November 2020. She said the study helps show teachers play a big role in their students’ views on healthy foods.

“The problem has been if teachers themselves are hesitant to that (healthy foods) so we’ve noticed, for example, when we go out to do education in classrooms that we will do activities with vegetables and the teachers will make negative comments,” Stage said. “We recognize that impact a teacher has.”

The study was interested in what teachers personally struggle with in regards to healthy eating, Stage said. Teachers have their own challenges and struggles when it comes to their personal life and eating habits, she said.

Stage said she noticed a problem in teacher reactions that could have a negative effect on students’ willingness to eat certain foods when her study held in-class interventions.

“The other thing that I noticed was in conversations with teachers, they would be super excited about telling us about these food learning activities they would do and introducing these foods to kids,” Stage said. “The descriptions they were giving were not necessarily healthy foods.”

Most of the time, teachers have their student’s best interests at heart, though they need more education and support when it comes to healthy eating behaviors, Stage said.

As the principal investigator or lead of the study, Stage said she and her partners coordinated a partnership with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) through North Carolina State University (NCSU).

“They (NCSU) have federally funded resources to provide nutrition education to communities that come from low-income backgrounds,” Stage said. “By partnering with an extension partner, you actually are able to tap into the additional resources, so EFNEP provided the educators and the curriculum.”

EFNEP’s curriculum, called Families Eating Smart and Moving More, was adapted for the specific needs of teachers in their study, Stage said. She said EFNEP’s educators were utilized to help educate teachers on healthy eating patterns.

Stage said the study taught them that nutrition education was not enough for teachers to change their practices and teach kids differently, so they reworked the study to become more meaningful.

ECU Professor of Human Development and Family Science Archana Hegde, who worked alongside Stage, said she has worked with teachers many times in the past.

“All of my work has been only teachers and teachers who work with young children, so when Dr. Stage decided to do something related to physical activity and teachers’ nutrition and how that is important and how that can impact children and families, I was completely on board,” Hegde said.

Hedge’s takeaway from the study was that teachers have the right intention, but they need help to understand how important it is to be a healthy role model for their students, she said.

FEEd project Coordinator and ECU graduate student in nutrition and public health Jocelyn Bayles said there is a notion that teachers with education on healthy eating and physical activity practice those behaviors in their personal and professional lives.

“There’s not a whole lot of evidence to back that up, so, the point of the study was to see, okay, what are teachers’ experiences trying to live healthier lives by eating better and moving more in their personal lives and then what are their experiences doing that in the classroom, to try and see if that theory held water,” Bayles said.

As an elementary education major during her undergraduate years at ECU, Bayles said her time spent in classrooms impacted her decision to study nutrition. She said Stage’s work in the field also drew her to nutrition.

Bayles said when she looked at the bigger picture, she saw her role in the study as being a part of the solution and partnership in the classroom. This influenced her to veer away from elementary education and led her to pursue nutrition as she studies for her masters degree, she said.

“I always thought that's what I wanted to do (major in elementary education), but I spent a lot of time in the classroom and started to realize that there were a lot of barriers that both teachers and students were facing,” Bayles said. “That kind of veered me anyway from childhood education and into nutrition.”

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