Evanston high school students lead after-school program on media, health

Julia Jacobs, Assistant City Editor

A new after-school program about the media’s influence on health concluded Feb. 26 with a session spent making a video that highlighted what Evanston elementary school students learned about nutrition and fitness.

Two Evanston Township High School juniors ran a program called Media-Smart Youth for fifth and sixth graders at Oakton Elementary School after applying for a $1,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The culminating video involved students reporting information about the healthiest vegetables and minerals, demonstrating fitness activities and sharing their favorite moments from the 11 lessons, said Miara Handler, one of the ETHS student leaders.

“At this age they’re really making choices that will affect them for the majority of their lives,” Handler said. “The goal was not to force them to make choices but to inform them. It’s easier to make a change when they’re 10 and 11 rather than 22 or 23.”

Miara Handler said she learned about the program through her mother Arden Handler, a professor of community health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and formed a partnership with the nonprofit Youth Organizations Umbrella, Inc. to get the program running.

About 11 students already in the Y.O.U. after-school program at Oakton, 436 Ridge Ave., consistently attended Media-Smart Youth twice a week starting in early January.

The NIH first released the Media-Smart Youth curriculum in 2005, providing a set curriculum of activities meant to build students’ media awareness, media production skills and knowledge of nutrition and physical fitness.

A main focus of the program was how media affects health choices, said Loie Gilbert, the second ETHS student leader. One activity involved students making a collage of magazine images as part of a lesson on body image, Gilbert said.

Worksheet-based activities were broken up by breaks for physically-active games and snack breaks, where the kids helped prepare healthful food such as yogurt parfaits and flavored popcorn, said Katrina Stumbras, the adult adviser of the program and a public health researcher at UIC.

Stumbras recalled that during a snack break after learning about ways in which food advertisements hide information about the product from consumers, one student in the program noticed that the information on his apple juice’s nutrition label revealed that it was not actually “100 percent juice.”

“I hope they’re a little bit more aware of the different ways that we’re all influenced by different media sources … and are able to better decipher through that information and make healthy decisions,” Stumbras said.

The students, leaders and Oakton representatives from Y.O.U took a field trip to Jewel-Osco, 1128 Chicago Ave., on Feb. 10 for a scavenger hunt for the products with the highest nutritional value, Miara Handler said. Students searched for items such as the bread with the most fiber, the greenest vegetables and the milk with the least amount of fat. Throughout the program, Gilbert and Handler made it a priority to keep students engaged with activities and discussions rather than making them work independently on the worksheets provided by the NIH.

“We knew that they’d already be in school for six and a half hours, so we tried to keep it as much hands-on as possible,” Handler said.

Next year ETHS will consider bringing back the program and involving more student leaders if anyone from ETHS decides to apply again for the grant, she said.

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