CSU cooking program for kids gains high praise

A Colorado State University program that teaches elementary school kids how to cook – and eat healthier in the process – has received glowing marks from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal.

“Fuel for Fun” is a cooking and activity program embedded in the fourth-grade curriculum at eight schools in the Poudre and Thompson school districts. Started by Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, it features five two-hour cooking lessons and five one-hour tasting sessions.

photo of Cunningham-Sabo and Lohse
Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, left, and Barbara Lohse (click to enlarge)

Fuel for Fun has shown promising signs of establishing healthy eating and activity behaviors among youngsters. A review of the program that appeared recently in the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease is the latest and strongest evidence that the initiative can improve kids’ opinions about fruits and vegetables, as well as their attitudes about — and confidence in — cooking.

A November article titled “The Impact of Cooking Classes on Food-Related Preferences, Attitudes, and Behaviors of School-Aged Children: A Systematic Review of the Evidence, 2003-2014” analyzed eight studies on kids’ cooking classes. Only two, both conducted by Cunningham-Sabo and her co-investigator, Barbara Lohse, a research professor at the Pennsylvania State University, received the highest possible grade. Both studies were funded by the Childhood Obesity Prevention Program of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The first, a study Cunningham-Sabo launched while at the University of New Mexico, focused on a Santa Fe-based program called “Cooking for Kids.” The second study examined a pilot program that Cunningham-Sabo helped launch in northern Colorado based on the Santa Fe initiative, a pilot that grew into the current Fuel for Fun program.

Changed food attitudes

She and Lohse found that both the Santa Fe version and the Colorado pilot were effective at changing what foods kids reported liking. After learning how to cook, children – especially boys – reported liking fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods more than they had before. The findings held true across socioeconomic and ethnic lines; Cunningham-Sabo said she saw kids’ attitudes change similarly whether they were low-income Latinos in Santa Fe or moderate-income whites in Fort Collins.

The program, which emphasizes Colorado fruits and vegetables such as apples, melons, lettuce and peas, goes beyond cooking and tasting. It focuses on everything from knife safety to proper food handling and now includes cafeteria, active recess and parental components. It involves undergraduate and graduate students in the CSU departments of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Health and Exercise Science, as well as Colorado School of Public Health students. The program is currently delivered to 23 classrooms, reaching about 475 fourth graders this year.

Cunningham-Sabo said she hopes the positive review from the CDC journal strengthens the case for additional funding to continue and expand Fuel for Fun to other school districts in Colorado and elsewhere.

“There has been a sharp decline in cooking skills taught in school and by families cooking at home, resulting in greater reliance on processed and fast food,” she said. “Funding research to show an evidence base in nutrition education is vital for the health of our children.”

For more information on the Fuel for Fun program, visit http://www.fshn.chhs.colostate.edu/research/SCOPL/index.aspx.