Better Choices, Better Future

Student-Led Nutrition Program Benefits Local Adults, Children


It all started with snacks.

Haley Rhodes '16 began volunteering as a tutor at the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson when she was a first-year student. She noticed that her students were having a lot of trouble focusing on their work, and also noticed that their afternoon snacks–which they ate each day shortly before tutoring–were always sugary, with little to no nutritional value.

Sure, the students liked the taste of the treats, but they had no idea that healthier alternatives would help them feel fuller and focus better. They'd never known any different.

"With children, nutrition education can be challenging because typically they eat what they're given," Rhodes said. "They're especially vulnerable, because they don't always have a say."

As a sophomore, Rhodes continued her work at Ada Jenkins, tutoring and working as a Spanish translator in the center's health clinic. She translated for the nutritionist, and realized that "so many cases involved nutrition–blood sugar, hypertension, things like that."

And she continued to investigate further.

She accompanied clients–many of them parents–to the center's food pantry, and saw that even though the pantry includes many healthy options, clients often do not select them. She noticed:

  • Most often they opt for name-brands they recognize
  • Many do not know what "organic" means or why it matters
  • Many find the thought of cooking with fresh ingredients daunting


Information Leads to Action

Rhodes' discoveries inspired her to take action. With support from fellow students, as well as a $5,000 Ideas of March grant provided through the Center for Civic Engagement and made possible through a donation from MSC Industrial Supply, in 2014 she piloted a nutrition-based public health program for Ada Jenkins clients called Ada Cooks.

Ada Cooks is a nutrition-based educational program for adults and children that aims to reduce non-communicable diseases through healthier eating. Each 8-week program offers two adult cooking classes per week–one in English and one in Spanish–and a weekly children's cooking class in partnership with Ada's LEARN Works youth program.

As part of the classes, which are designed and coordinated by Rhodes, Hayden Bates '17, and Sarah Dwyer '16, participants learn new recipes and also learn nutrition facts and methods for making better food choices and finding healthy alternatives to their regular go-to items. All recipes are developed with budget in mind, and most can be made for less than $1.50 per serving.

The adult class has an additional component: research. Haley serves as the principal investigator for a longitudinal health study, in which she will track one of the Ada Cooks adult cohorts over time. They will monitor individuals' health information (blood sugar levels, weight, blood pressure, etc) as well as their food pantry activity and nutrition.

About 20 Davidson College students volunteer with Ada Cooks, as well as a nutritionist, a medical doctor and a research advisor. Rhodes orchestrates and oversees the many moving parts of the program, and continues to think of new ways to enhance and expand it.

"This is what I really love doing-being a strategist," Rhodes said.

A public health and Hispanic studies double-major, Rhodes is excited to see all of her research and coursework culminate in the Ada Cooks initiative, she said.