Council Bluffs school dietitian inspires kids to “Pick a better snack”

June 8, 2018
by Tina Bakehouse, Outreach and Communication Coordinator, Golden Hills RC&D

Judy Dittmar strides across Zack Edler’s third grade classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School in Council Bluffs. With a purple marker in hand, she writes “KUMQUAT” on the board in all caps. As the students file into the classroom, they point to the strange word and murmur, “What’s that?”

Dittmar, the 54-year-old dietitian for the Council Bluffs Community School District, asks them, “Who’s ready to try a kumquat?” Some hands shoot up, while some students raise their eyebrows, hesitant to try the orange, oblong fruit.

pick pineapple 1
It’s pineapple-tasting day with Judy!

Dittmar is on the front lines of America’s struggle to get our children to eat better. Few places in Iowa have an obesity problem as big as the county that surrounds Council Bluffs. Pottawattamie County was near the bottom for health indicators in 2014 — 91st out of Iowa’s 99 counties.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 36.8% of Pottawattamie County adult residents were obese. That was five percentage points higher than Iowa’s average that year of 31.6 percent for obesity — and considerably higher than the national average of 27.7 percent.

Individuals who are obese have a higher risk for other lifetime health problems such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and more. Poor nutrition ranks 6th out of 10 leading causes of death. This carries significant financial consequences, increasing healthcare costs nationwide.

Teaching kids to eat right can help prevent a lifetime of obesity. “Obese kids are more likely to be obese adults,” said Suzy Wilson, a nutrition consultant at the Iowa Department of Public Health. “The habits kids learn when they’re young can translate to what they’ll do as adults.”

Breaking the cycle

But breaking this cycle is hard.

“For one, it’s hard to change habits. Our environments are filled with unhealthy snack foods and fast foods that are quick, cheap and tasty,” said Wilson.

Ruth Litchfield, Iowa State University professor of food science and nutrition, said, “Our environment has been referred to as an ‘obesogenic environment.’ It does not promote physical activity and promotes consumption of large portions of high-calorie, low-nutrient food.”

In 2014, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported that 14 percent of junior high and high school students consumed less than one fruit a day, and 18 percent consumed less than one vegetable a day — far below the daily recommended amount. The US Department of Agriculture recommends children ages 9 to 13 should eat 1 ½ cups of fruit and 2-2 ½ cups of vegetables every day.

pick logoEating right is even harder for those who live in poverty. Junk food is less expensive than healthier food. Many live in a food desert, where there are so few grocery stores that finding healthy, affordable food is hard. Unfortunately, one in five children in Iowa is food insecure. The US Census Bureau estimates that 10 percent of Pottawattamie County residents live in poverty.

According to Lisa Stewart, director of nutrition services and warehouse for Council Bluffs Community School District, says, “Eight out of 11 elementary schools [in the district] serve lunch to students for free. School is the primary food source in Council Bluffs.” But the dependence on schools for food makes them perfect arenas for teaching kids how to eat right.

Working to improve habits

Few school districts in Iowa are working as aggressively to improve the eating habits of their students. Council Bluffs is one of only 14 Iowa school districts, with 92 schools in 13 counties, involved in the Pick a better snack™ program. This federal program, developed in Iowa, teaches K-3 kids healthy eating habits and encourage physical activity.

In order to qualify for the program, urban schools must report that 60 percent of their student population participates in the free and reduced-price lunch program. Rural schools must report 55 percent participation. Even having a dietitian conduct a nutrition lesson in an elementary school is unusual.

pick pineapple 2But Dittmar is proving that children from disadvantaged households can learn to eat healthier at home. Each month during a 30-minute lesson, she introduces a food and reads a related book. She encourages students to do a physical activity such as jumping jacks. She provides food samples, and asks for student feedback. Dittmar says, “Kids are more likely to try new foods at school. It’s positive peer pressure.”

Students give a “thumbs up” if they like the food. “Don’t ‘yuck’ my ‘yum’,” Dittmar says, teaching children to respect different opinions, empowering them to make their own decisions. Third graders receive bingo cards, encouraging families to be active and eat healthy. All students wear stickers, saying “ASK ME ABOUT ­­­­_______” to elicit discussion with parents at home.

Getting excited about produce

Hailey Moher, age 6, says, “She brings yummy things, and we try different fruits.” Mason Aldredge, age 6, says, “Judy is fun. We try new foods, like garbanzo beans.” Zach Edler, Roosevelt third grade teacher, has started eating the healthy snacks this year during Judy’s visits. He has observed that more students now try the new foods because he’s willing to try them.

Sindy Kafka, Roosevelt kindergarten teacher, noted she’d never tried jicama before. Kafka says that because of Judy, she tried it, and along with the kindergartners, now knows what it is.

Wilson, from Iowa Department of Public Health, has seen Judy interact with students in the classroom, saying, “The kids like Judy. She does a great job relating to students, and connecting the Pick a better snack™ lesson to academics, getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables.”

Stewart, Dittmar’s supervisor, agrees. “I learned everything I know about nutrition from Judy,” she said. “She’s very important to the district and this department, and is a great part of our team.”

Contagious habits

Judy’s healthy habits are contagious. Buzzing through hallways with her food cart wearing a bright red polo, jean skirt, and tights decorated with pictures of vegetables, she hugs students, welcomes food service staff, and high-fives teachers. With her petite, athletic build, she exudes confidence and a passion for healthy eating.

In high school, she thrived as an athlete and raised a garden with her family. She still practices what she preaches. She runs half-marathons, bikes trails and roadways, and enjoys eating fresh produce from the local Bountiful Baskets program.

Dittmar’s lessons reach beyond the classroom. Her lessons even get parents to eat better. Sara Watts, Mason’s mom, says, “I normally don’t eat a lot of fruit and veggies. When we’re at the grocery store, my son points out food he’s had at school and asks me to buy them. Like pears. Or pineapple. Now, we’re eating a lot healthier at home.”

pick pineapple 3Pick a better snack™ has three goals: increase intake of fruits and vegetables through food tastings; increase physical activity to 60 minutes daily; and increase consumption of low-fat dairy products. Through this program, Dittmar presents fun, research-based lessons, prepares healthy snacks, and coordinates with teachers, Iowa Department of Public Health, other dietitians, and staff. She writes grants to fund her programs and supplies because her position is 80% grant funded.

Each month, she teaches 1,500 students in seven elementary schools, contacts more than 12,000 youth each year, and brings in $57,418 for the district.

Due to dietitians such as Dittmar, the Pick a better snack™ program improves children’s eating behavior. In 2011-2012, the USDA conducted a study that showed students participating in the program ate more fruits and vegetables than those who did not participate.

Success is threatened

The word is getting out.

The program is marketed on social media, billboards, posters, online, and at schools. So there’s more awareness about the program and the importance of eating healthy, supporting Dittmar’s efforts. “It’s making small changes in the food we choose to eat,” said Wilson, referring to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

But the program’s success is being overshadowed by budget fights in Washington. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) education program, or “SNAP-Ed,” is one of the farm bill programs under debate for future funding. Agriculture committees in Congress are debating whether to make big changes to all SNAP-Ed programs, which funds Pick a better snack™. More than $600,000 is awarded to the program in Iowa each year. Iowa Department of Health officials are watching the farm bill debate closely to see whether SNAP-Ed will be cut.

Dittmar worries about the program going away. “I’m a nonessential,” she says. Nutrition education is considered supplemental education, and the program is threatened.

Even with these challenges, Dittmar continues pursuing opportunities to expand nutrition education in the district. She’s writing another grant. If she gets it, the Council Bluffs school system will add another dietitian to teach Pick a better snack™ to more students in the district.

Nature’s candy?

pick pineapple 4Dittmar holds the kumquat in her hand. Excited to find this “rare treasure,” she buys them in bulk to share. Grinning, she says, “Kumquats are my favorite — nature’s sour, tart candy. Give it a try.”

The students can’t let Dittmar down. After the sniff test, they pop the small, unique fruit whole into their mouths. Everyone makes a face. A few pass on second helpings. Several shriek in delight. Kinzie Jones, age 9, says she’d try them again because “they’re both sweet and sour.”

If you walk into Roosevelt or the six other elementary schools in the Council Bluffs Community School District, you’re likely to encounter Judy Dittmar. She’ll be zooming from class to class with her “You’ve Got Power” cart, passing out snap peas, hummus, or pineapple to try, and smiling and hugging kids as they go by.

Dittmar goes the extra mile. As director Stewart says, “There’s so much more to Judy’s job than feeding kids and giving snacks.”

Golden Hills RC&D, a nonprofit organization in Southwest Iowa, has partnered with Judy Dittmar for this project and other local foods initiatives.


Snacks for Healthy Kids (Extension publication)

SNAP-Ed Toolkit – Pick a better snack™

Working with youth resource page

Contact Tina Bakehouse: