By BILL COATES
Valley Life Editor
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 10:01 AM MST
Jennifer Staples had the attention of some 45 first-graders at McCartney Ranch Elementary School. They were about to get a lesson in healthy eating with help from a small-scale model of a skeleton.
“This is Mr. Bones,” Staples told them.
Mr. Bones wasn’t the only prop. The table beside Staples had plastic models of food — cheese slices, pizza topped with cheese, macaroni and cheese and prop glasses of milk. She did not pass the props around. She stopped doing that after — at another school — the pizza came back with a bite mark.
The students — two combined classes — sat on the floor in rows of four or five. With the help of Mr. Bones, they learned why bones are important. It wasn’t all lecture. They had their say, if they raised their hands and didn’t speak out of turn.
Bones protect the brain and the heart, Staples said pointing to Mr. Bones’ skull and his rib cage.
What else do bones do? she asked. She took that one herself. “They hold us together.”
Jacob Ross, 7, sitting in the back, knew the answer. He just wasn’t quite fast enough.
Frustrated, he replied: “That’s what I was going to say.”
Still, he and his classmates learned how the right foods can make healthy bones and teeth. And they learned that these foods all have one thing in common. They all come from milk. Just the same, some are more healthy than others.
Dairy foods loaded with fat and sugar aren’t the healthiest way to build strong bones.
At session’s end, Staples lets the kids sample a healthy bone-building snack, a banana-strawberry smoothie made with low-fat yogurt. Staples had two more classes after this, all first-graders. In weeks to comes, she’ll be delivering her message of healthy eating to kids in other schools, a different message for each grade — from kindergarten through middle school. It could be a lesson on fibers from fruits and vegetables for third-graders in Eloy, or on healthy protein to fourth-graders in Florence.
It’s all part of her job as coordinator of SNAP-Ed for Pinal County Cooperative Extension, an arm of the University of Arizona. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. SNAP is today’s term for the food stamp program.
Staples is one of four SNAP nutrition educators who promote healthy eating to low-income children and their families throughout Pinal County. They take their message to schools where more than half the children qualify for reduced-price or free lunches.
That’s not a big limiting factor.
“That’s the majority of schools in Pinal County,” Staples said in an interview outside the classroom. She added: “Each nutritionist has a different set of schools. I work with 16 schools.”
She makes some 150 to 200 classroom visits a year.