Teaching a crew of second graders how to cook healthy meals like tofu and vegetables isn’t most people’s idea of a great time. But Nathaniel Overmire enjoyed his volunteer gig teaching kids at Live Healthy Appalachia the finer points of prepping nutritious and delicious food so much that it formed basis for his Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project.
Overmire was a first-year student at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine with a strong interest in a life of service when his mentor suggested he’d enjoy teaching the weekly class, which is based on “Food is Elementary,” a curriculum that teaches kids about food, nutrition, culture, and healthy living.
“She was right,” says Overmire.
As a Schweitzer Fellow, Overmire adapted the curriculum for an older crowd and implemented the retooled class for students at Nelsonville-York High School in Nelsonville, OH. Despite the different target audience, his goal remains the same, says Overmire: “Educating students about the relationship between food choices and disease prevention, encouraging the natural curiosity and creativity of learning, providing students with the life skill of food preparation through interactive experience; and introducing healthy foods through the traditions and arts of different cultures.”
Overmire knows instilling the importance of good nutrition for young adults and laying a foundation for a life of healthier eating won’t happen overnight. “I am not naïve,” he says. “I don’t expect students to instantly trade the Big Mac for tofu and vegetables.”
Introducing picky teenagers to new foods not manufactured by Hostess or Little Debbie did require some rules. The first was Overmire’s “just try it” rule, which encouraged students to sample each new meal no matter if the ingredients seemed unfamiliar. The second rule prohibited disparaging comments (“This sucks!”) after tasting a dish, so as not to bias other students in the class toward the exotic culinary creations before they took a taste. This led to students euphemistically expressing their displeasure with certain recipes by using the term “interesting.”
“For example,” Overmire recalls, “after trying our tofu recipe a few students scowled at me and said, “This is very interesting.” A beet smoothie, he says, produced a similar response from a student, along with a frown: “Very interesting, Mr. O.”
But as the class has progressed, he’s heard the word “interesting” less and less. “Students are more willing to provide taste descriptions that are thoughtful and authentic,” Overmire says. “Now, they express excitement at the thought of trying something new, even if it’s potentially dissatisfying.”
Even if students don’t ultimately abandon Big Macs for tofu burgers, they will at least have learned about the menu of more healthy options that exist.
“I will have at least exposed them to tofu—and the different ways to prepare it – along with eggplant, bulgur wheat, and fresh pineapple,” says Overmire. “The program offers a variety of healthy and inexpensive options—allowing the students to feel, smell, and taste these options. I want them to be knowledgeable and make the right choices concerning the foods they eat.”
Overmire must be doing something right because Nelsonville-York High School is interested in continuing the program beyond his fellowship. “Both the teacher and principal have said that the program adds value to their curriculum,” he says. “With the right volunteers and adequate funding from the Heritage College and Live Healthy Appalachia, the program can be sustained and successful in the future.”
Overmire’s interest in a life of service stretches back to his high school years, when he attended the Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) World Leadership Congress as a sophomore. It was hearing HOBY founder and namesake Hugh O’Brian share his story about volunteering with Dr. Albert Schweitzer at the Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné that Overmire that inspired him to pursue his own service-oriented career.
“Mr. O’Brian was greatly impacted by Dr. Schweitzer, calling him ‘a great humanitarian who could have done anything he wanted in the world, and there he was in the middle of Africa taking care of people,’” Overmire recalls. “By the end of Mr. O’Brian’s conversation with us, I was deeply moved.”
His experience as a Schweitzer Fellow has been equally moving.
“There are times when it hits you,” he says of the Fellowship’s impact. “Whether it’s during a monthly meeting with other fellows or when I am helping a student at my project site, it hits you that you are in a very privileged position—one with responsibilities and duties not ascribed to just anyone. It’s in these moments that I realize how fortunate I am to be having this experience and these opportunities, and how grateful I am for them.
“I am humbled and honored once my project is completed to belong to the alumni network of ‘Fellows for Life,’” Overmire adds. “This is a very exciting aspect of the fellowship. The connectedness to other hard-working, like-minded individuals for years to come creates a perfect opportunity to connect with other fellows—perhaps to even collaborate on a new project.”
Click here to learn more about the Columbus-Athens Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.