BENTONVILLE -- Fort Smith kindergarten teachers are learning to create nutrition-based curriculum to provide healthier learning experiences and lifestyle choices for students.
"It's going to be so life changing for our kids," said Karen Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Fort Smith's Ballman Elementary School. "It's going to be so engaging. I think that kids are going to want to come to school, they're going to want to be involved."
Twelve teachers are participating in the 20-hour training session Monday through Thursday this week at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food, said Marshall Shafkowitz, Brightwater executive director.
Hands-on learning for the teachers includes foundational skills, such as kitchen safety, sanitation, knife skills and basic cooking methods, while providing them tips for teaching the skills to students, Shafkowitz said.
"Our goal in the first 20 hours is to ensure the teachers feel comfortable working with the tools they will have once they start teaching their classes in the fall," he said.
Teachers also learned about growing food in the classroom with students through vertical gardens, which allows students to grow produce in small spaces without soil, according to the curriculum. Vertical gardens can be used in small spaces, as plants grow upward to conserve space.
Growing produce in the classroom presents opportunities for learning on multiple levels, said Elizabeth McClain, Arkansas Colleges of Health Education chief wellness officer.
Students can learn about not only the science involved with growing produce, but also the food's nutritional value, math principles by weighing and measuring what they grow and how to prepare the produce in meals they may consume at home or bring to school, McClain said.
"We can teach almost anything through food," Shafkowitz said.
The pilot initiative has been a year in the making and is being done through a collaboration among Brightwater, Fort Smith Public Schools and Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, he said.
Arkansas Colleges of Health Education is a private school in Fort Smith with a mission that includes providing healthy living environments to improve the lives of others, according to the college's website.
The program is being paid for by a private donor and professional development money from the Fort Smith School District, Shafkowitz said.
Training costs from $3,000 to $4,000 per participating school, said Laurie Baldridge, Fort Smith School District elementary science, technology, engineering and math specialist.
The program has been limited to 12 of Fort Smith's 52 kindergarten teachers for the pilot, which will be assessed for expansion during the school year, Baldridge said.
Fort Smith was selected as the first location to introduce the initiative due to its being a food desert community, Shafkowitz said.
Food deserts are communities with narrow access to fresh food through barriers such as a limited number of places to purchase fresh food or a lack of transportation to such places, he said.
"Several of the neighborhoods are driving neighborhoods, where if you need to go to a grocery store, you've got to get on the bus, and you've got to go 2, 3, 4, 5 miles," Shafkowitz said. "That's not walkable."
The cost of fresh produce compared to processed or prepackaged food can also present a challenge for families, McClain said.
"If I can't afford it, I'm going to make a different choice," she said.
As such, students may not be able to learn healthy eating habits at a young age, which may influence their health choices, Baldridge said.
"Exposing students and their families to health and wellness education through this pilot program will allow the district to positively impact the health of the community in which it serves," she said.
About 73% of Fort Smith students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, administrators said, a common gauge of poverty in school districts.
The program has the potential to be introduced to Northwest Arkansas districts beyond Fort Smith, with this week's training "just the tip of the iceberg," Shafkowitz said.
Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food is the culinary school of Northwest Arkansas Community College. To learn more, visit brightwater.org.