Students in Kristi Lepel’s fifth-grade class at Paularino Elementary settle into their seats, as Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s Nutritionist Pam Williams pulls a plastic dinner plate from her bag. “Does anyone know what this is?” she asks, and a few hands raise.
A boy in the front row struggles with his answer but finally identifies the brightly colored, plastic divided plate as a symbol from MyPlate.gov of the five food groups: fruits, grains, vegetables, protein and dairy.
Williams’ face lights up with a smile. “Yes! That’s it!” she says.
In 30 minutes, Williams explores with the class the food groups and how to read nutrition labels to choose healthy foods to fuel their bodies. Along with visual aids and worksheets, she brings an infectious enthusiasm to the room.
It’s clear to everyone who has seen her in action that teaching people about nutrition is a passion for Williams. “Ms. Pam brings a theatrical flair to her lessons that we love,” said Killybrooke Elementary Principal Laura Taylor.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in home economics and a master’s in public health nutrition and health education, the registered dietician joined NMUSD in 2007. She has since visited schools throughout the district, teaching students of every age the power behind good nutrition.
Williams believes it’s essential to start teaching children at an early age about how food works with their bodies. “I don’t tell them what they should and shouldn’t eat. I teach them how to decide for themselves,” Williams said.
Williams created a teaching tool using a thick tri-fold poster board, velcro, and an enlarged, laminated Nutrition Facts label. The sections of the label are cut apart into more digestible lessons. She fastens the top portion of the label to the board and asks what seems like an easy question: What is a serving? As Williams points to raised hands in Lepel’s classroom and listens to each student’s answers, her smile widens. She explains how not every package contains just one serving and the importance of looking at the serving size to determine how much to eat. This label is for a one-cup serving, she points out, then forms her hand into a fist to demonstrate the size of that serving.
Williams continues through the parts of the label, carefully fastening each one to the board as she goes. The students learn about calories and how food is turned into fuel for their bodies. They discuss the suggested daily values of nutrients such as protein and calcium, plus how to determine when a food item has too much or too little of those values. Williams quickly but effectively touches on every item on the label. She then hands out a worksheet so the fifth-graders can put what they’ve learned into action. On one side of the paper are two nutrition labels: one for a bag of potato chips and the other for a container of strawberries. On the opposite side are questions about serving sizes and the different nutrients you can get from the foods. Together, Williams and the students answer each question. The students are learning how to calculate what their bodies get from the foods they eat as well as how to make healthy choices.
“I think next time I’m hungry, I might choose strawberries,” said fifth-grade student Jeremiah Hernandez.
It’s not just kids who are learning from Williams. She shares her knowledge with their parents, too. She brought her nutrition label board to a recent English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC) meeting at Killybrooke, where she discussed how parents can help their children make good food decisions through their own choices.
At the end of her lesson, parents ask questions and ask for recommendations on applications they can download to their phones to help them better understand nutrition labels and make choices at the grocery store. Williams stays through the end of the meeting, and parents thank her as they leave Killybrooke’s multipurpose room. “I love what I do, and I think that shows whether I’m in the classroom or at a meeting like this one. Good nutrition is important for everyone,” Williams said.
Teachers and administrators can request nutrition lessons tailored to specific grade levels by contacting the district’s Nutrition Services Department.