Outreach

Mason Nutrition Faculty, Students Provide Training for County Program

By Buzz McClain

The program is called WIC, and it stands for women, infants, and children. Lots of them. Fairfax County’s supplemental nutrition program, funded by the Department of Agriculture, is a short-term intervention designed to teach women in need better food and health behaviors when it comes to feeding their families.

In need? That’s an understatement. To be eligible, the client must be pregnant, nursing, or have children under 5, live in Fairfax County, and have an income that is 185 percent below the national poverty level; for a family of four the federal level is $23,050.

Mason faculty and students from the Nutrition and Food Studies Program worked with trainers for the county's Woman, Infants, and Children program to go over simple recipes and devise meal plans. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason faculty and students from the Nutrition and Food Studies Program worked with trainers for the county’s Woman, Infants, and Children program to go over simple recipes and devise meal plans. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Clearly, this is a demographic that needs to know how to get the most nutrition from a meager food budget. WIC’s staff trainers teach the clients how to do that, by providing them with kitchen skills, recipes, grocery store savvy, and nutrition information to last a lifetime.

But who trains the trainers?

Of late, it’s been the faculty and graduate students from George Mason University’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. Last October, 55 WIC trainers spent a daylong retreat in the department’s classroom, a converted diner in Fairfax City now called the Nutrition Kitchen, as department chair Lisa Pawloski and professor Gabriella Petrick, along with several students from the NUTR 630 Global Nutrition class, helped the trainers polish their nutrition skills.

“In most nutrition programs across the country, nutritionists don’t learn how to cook,” Pawloski says. “They learn about physiology and how nutrients impact the body. They don’t always have the practical knowledge; what we’re doing is giving them some of that practical knowledge, and we have a great facility to do that at the [Nutrition Kitchen]. We also have a department that believes that that food piece—the food systems, the food studies piece—is just as critical as the nutrition science.”

Mason professor Lisa Pawloski, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at Mason, speaks to the group of Fairfax County WIC trainers. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason professor Lisa Pawloski, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at Mason, speaks to the group of Fairfax County WIC trainers. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The George Mason University staff realized before the session that there were many factors that prevented the seminar from being as simple as pointing out what’s inexpensive and nutritious and how to cook it.

“A large immigrant population uses this training,” Pawloski says. “We had to use spices and ingredients to make the food appealing to personal cultures, as well as develop meals that are going to be healthy for the entire family.”

Nationalities represented by the trainers included representatives from around the world, from countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East; 50 percent spoke more than one language other than English. Simply showing them how to steam broccoli wasn’t going to do the trick.

But it was essential that they learn the lesson. Studies show that while immigrant populations have little trouble avoiding unhealthy dietary habits at home, once they settle in America, the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other nutrition-related illnesses rises dramatically, particularly, Pawloski points out, “as generations progress here in the United States.”

Another consideration was the age of the clients the WIC trainers might encounter. “You have elderly relatives living with babies,that makes it more challenging,” she says. Through it all, “we tried to simplify [the lesson] enough so they could absorb it and make it fun, too.”

The trainers learned how to shop effectively at the nearby Safeway and prepare a menu of sweet potato pancakes, ginger beer, grilled vegetables, and lentil soup using the food service equipment at the diner-classroom.

“We roasted vegetables with a little olive oil, salt, and garlic in an oven, and it was quite tasty—and the trainers were amazed,” Pawloski says.

The impact of the training on families in need in the Northern Virginia region is considerable. Anna Kanianthra, WIC coordinator and a George Mason professor of global and community health, estimates some 20,000 area residents—most of them, of course, women, infants, and children—will benefit from the session.

Kanianthra and Pawloski expect to repeat the training-the-trainers event again in the spring. The first session was funded by the federal Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) Virginia Public Health Training Center.  Pawloski says a portion of a grant from the Virginia Department of Health will be combined with the HRSA grant to continue the program.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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