As a teacher in Baton Rouge and New Orleans elementary schools, Lisa Staples saw a huge need to engage students in health education. During her four years teaching, she managed to work the topic into extra-curricular activities such as a health fair, career day, science fair, and book fair, but she knew her efforts were inadequate to create lasting change in her students’ health habits.
“I realized families were dealing with so many things in their life other than their child’s education,” says Staples. “I knew that I was making an impact but not on a big enough scale. There was something more that was needed.”
“Something more” presented itself when Staples enrolled in Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, School of Public Health and learned about The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in the Program and Planning course she took in her first semester as an MPH student. Seeing a Fellowship as an opportunity to make a bigger impact on child health, Staples researched and drafted the Little Bitty Learning (LBL) program for the class, a program aimed at educating Early Head Start families about the importance of nutrition, adopting positive household routines, and engaging kids in physical activity with the overall goal of preventing or reducing childhood obesity.
“Through my research I learned that early intervention is key and engaging families while their children are young can make an impact,” said Staples. “Once my program was accepted into ASF, I knew I’d be able to bring it to life and make a more lasting impact in the lives of more children in Louisiana.”
Staples, a New Orleans Fellow, implemented LBL at her community site, McMillian’s First Steps, an Early Head Start Center in the city. In LBL, Staples coaches parents in ways to shop for and prepare healthy meals on a limited budget using the Cooking Matters for Parents curriculum. Parents also receive research-based lifestyle and parenting education lessons. Meanwhile, their children engage in physical activities and enrichment opportunities offered by local children-centered organizations. LBL also includes a health communications campaign that further elaborates the teaching to parents outside of the class time.
Staples has enjoyed seeing and hearing about LBL’s impact on participants during the shared dinners that happen at the end of each class, where families discuss their successes and setbacks in implementing healthy changes at home.
“We went to bed a whole hour early!” she heard one parent say.
“My kids love cooking with me in the kitchen now since we cook all together,” said another.
“I have never cooked black beans before,” a participant confessed, adding, “They are good and my granddaughter likes them!”
“We eat as a family for dinner more nights during the week!” said one satisfied participant.
“I wish more parents were involved in this type of program!” said another.
“Those testimonies have been wonderful to hear,” Staples said. “I thoroughly enjoyed working with these families to find ways to lead a healthier lifestyle and giving them the foundational skills to continue these habits long-term.”
Staples proudly points out an unintended effect of LBL: the administrative staff at McMillian’s First Steps loved the weekly meals, too, sampling the leftovers and asking for recipes so they could make the dishes at home.
Staples has taken multiple steps to ensure LBL can be sustained beyond her Fellowship year. First, the program was recently accepted into Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center’s
Inter-Professional Student Alliance (IPSA), so it will be advertised to all six schools on campus as a volunteer opportunity for interested students. Staples said she’s already recruited student volunteers from a variety of degree programs through IPSA. In addition, she plans to launch recruitment efforts for an executive board in January to help continue and carry out the program beyond this 2017-2018 school year.
Beyond securing student volunteers, Staples developed a partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans to provide the Cooking Matters for Parents Curriculum. She also recruited a chef to help teach the cooking portion of her class through the food bank’s volunteer database. “He was a wonderful addition and has helped the families learn so much,” said Staples.
She also forged relationships with the Tulane University School of Public and Tropical Medicine Dietetic Internship program, which provided dieticians-in-training to execute the nutrition portion of the classes. Furthermore, she also recruited several New Orleans’ children’s organizations to lead the program’s physical activity component.
“Each partnership has helped build the LBL’s sustainability so that it can be replicated for many more semesters to come,” Staples said.
What surprised Staples most about the project was how much she enjoyed the role of coordinator, which offered her the opportunity to engage once again with children, an activity she has missed since becoming a full-time student.
“I enjoyed dancing, doing yoga, kung fu and so many other activities with them!” said Staples, who added that she also learned valuable cooking tips from the volunteer chef.
But she especially enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the families in her program.
“I have loved learning about them and their lives and getting to know them on a personal level,” said Staples. “I feel it helped with the execution of the program.”
Staples credited LBL student volunteers for making her program successful.
“I was surprised but how many people were interested in participating in the program,” she said. “It really helped with the fluidity and successful execution of LBL.”
Staples is also grateful for the opportunity the Fellowship gave her to sharpen her organizational, planning, time management, communication, and networking skills.
“All these skills are transferrable and I have learned to adapt them in any given setting,” said Staples. “Overall, I am thankful for my participation in the Fellowship.”