WeCook after-school program engaging local underserved youth

WeCook is a 12-week program targeting underserved fourth and fifth graders.

April 6, 2016

Lincoln, Neb. — Childhood obesity has become a major health problem for youth in the United States. This is especially true among low-income families that often lack the time and budget to commit to proper nutrition. Nebraska 4-H Youth Development is addressing this issue through a program called WeCook: Fun with Food and Fitness.

WeCook is a 12-week program targeting underserved fourth and fifth graders. There are currently 30 youth participating from Arnold Elementary and West Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln. Those schools were selected based off of the percentage of students in the system receiving free and reduced lunches.

Participants attend two 60-minute sessions per week dedicated to teaching food preparation skills, the importance of nutrition using USDA guidelines and increasing physical activities through interactive games. The program model was created using a unique combination of current research and evidenced-based curricula. While the methodology behind the program activities is scientific, participants and their parents see it as a safe and enjoyable after-school option. 

“It’s really about having fun,” said Tara Dunker, state program coordinator for WeCook. “We want youth enrolled in the program to learn without recognizing that they are learning.”

One aspect of the program that youth get excited about is the opportunity to wear a Fitbit activity tracker. Each participant gets to wear a Fitbit for one week at the beginning of the program and then again at the end of the 12 weeks. The Fitbit devices track their 24-hour movement, including sleeping patterns. Statistical analysis is then conducted to assess changes related to goals of the WeCook program.

Parents of WeCook participants also get involved. During the program there are three family meal nights where participants and their family prepare a healthy meal together. The idea is for healthy cooking to become a fun activity that the whole family can participate in at home.

Participants should walk away from the program with an increased knowledge of healthy food choices, improved healthy food selection skills and an increased knowledge of physical activity benefits. One participant noted that they learned that peppers are good in the WeCook program. It’s simple feedback that tells program organizers that WeCook is on the right track.

“Whether it’s learning basic cooking skills or developing a love for fruits and vegetables, those lifelong habits you establish as a child will carry over into adulthood, said Youth Development Specialist Michelle Krehbiel.

The first 12-week pilot session of the WeCook program was completed in December of 2015. Early results among youth showed a slight increase in perception of ability to make healthy food and beverage choices. Data will be gathered throughout future semesters of the program to indicate clearer results.

WeCook is a project funded through the Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) grant program through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture(NIFA). While children and youth living in low-income families and high-risk environments face challenges, CYFAR programs utilize youth development strategies to focus on positive outcomes for young people, rather than only on preventing negative outcomes. The five-year WeCook project is funded through the summer of 2019.

Nebraska 4-H hopes that community partnerships will lead to WeCook being sustainable beyond the length of the grant. Those partnerships include Lancaster County Extension, Lincoln Public Schools, Lincoln Community Learning Centers, Lincoln Housing Authority, and Lincoln Parks and Recreation. These groups assist the program by providing curricula, expertise, facilities, recruitment and volunteers to conduct programming.

Lincoln Parks and Recreation has committed to help expand the program into a summer session. The session will have slightly altered programing, but will still be a 12-week session featuring research and evidence-based curricula. It’s a great opportunity to gather additional data, and provide a safe and fun learning environment for youth you may not have one during that time of year.

For more information on the WeCook: Fun with Food and Fitness program, contact Dunker at 402-472-4741 or tdunker2@unl.edu.

Tara Dunker
Nebraska 4-H Youth Development

Haley Steinkuhler
IANR Media