Partners in a nutrition program unveiled to kindergarten children in Fort Smith this fall hope to open a new world of health and education for students.

The integrated culinary arts and nutrition program begins the new school year as a partnership between the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE), the Fort Smith Public School System, and the Brightwater Center for the Study of Food. The program is part of the ACHE’s Health and Wellness Center research institute, which will move into the former Golden Living Facility at the end of 2022 after the renovation work is complete.

The collaboration was formed through the organizations’ mutual commitment to healthy community change and the need to address nutritional issues in the region.

“This is because Fort Smith has been designated a food wasteland by the Urban Institute,” said Elizabeth McClain, ACHE’s chief wellness officer.

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Food deserts are communities where low-income residents often have to travel more than a mile to access healthy food.

In food deserts, the most vulnerable people in the community are those who are most at risk of not having a fair opportunity to get nutritious food, McClain said. Diet is critical to physical development, cognitive development, and emotional development – all of which help people feel holistically healthy.

Being able to make healthy choices about this type of diet goes without saying for many, McClain said.

Brightwater Chefs will work with teachers and their curriculum to create lessons that combine healthy eating with STEM and STEAM elements.

Introducing concepts taught in the younger-minded program is an opportunity for lasting change, said Marshall Shafkowitz, executive director of Brightwater.

Brightwater will play a fundamental role in the program, Shafkowitz said. The school will teach teachers about food and nutrition and how to apply this knowledge in their classrooms.

“(They are) using food as a medium to teach science, technology, engineering, art, and math,” Shafkowitz said. “And the goal is to open the world to students.”

The program is conducted in nine classrooms at three different schools – Cook Elementary, Fairview Elementary, and Ballman Elementary, said Martin Mahan, assistant principal of Fort Smith Public Schools.

He said it was an opportunity for innovative teaching.

In mid-July there will be a week of training for teachers at Brightwater in Bentonville. The teachers will spend 20 hours in laboratories with two teachers from the school and Shafkowitz.

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Teachers will learn a variety of things to make themselves more comfortable in the kitchen, including induction cooking, classes on nutrition, and how tower gardens work, Shafkowitz said.

Tower Gardens are an aeroponic system that grows plants in an air or fog environment. It uses water, liquid nutrients, and a soilless growth.

Through the tower gardens, students can not only see the products grow, but also what contributes to it, said Shafkowitz. You will be able to see the math and science of everything.

“So now we are superimposing healthy eating and food to discuss the world,” said Shafkowitz.

It’s a chance to learn in ways that aren’t just a math problem, McClain said. Students will be able to see applied learning, including how to measure things, look at soil density, how the tower gardens are composed, and how they work.

It’s also an opportunity to create a community among the classrooms these gardens will have, McClain said. Students then learn to cook what they grow and it goes from there, she said.

“Something as small as growing gardens can be a way to connect communities, change the diet and promote independence,” said McClain.