About three dozen students put their skills to work as they prepared dinner for over 100 guests after hands-on learning that taught them about nutrition, gardening and community service on Saturday.
The 4-H'ers from five low-income schools in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District and Oceano Elementary met at Liberty Elementary for an afternoon filled with STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) classes and learning about public speaking, health and the 4-H Youth Development Program.
The project, called 4-H SNAC (Student Nutrition Advisory Council) Clubs, is a collaboration between two UC Cooperative Extension programs in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties -- UC CalFresh Nutrition Education and UC 4-H Youth Development -- and the the schools.
Students experience activities they may not have time to explore at school -- everything from public speaking, STEM, health, gardening and the like, said Janelle Hansen, 4-H program supervisor. The event marked the third year of youth leadership training.
"There are so many reasons why today is so important," said Shannon Klisch, nutrition education supervisor for the UC Cal Fresh Nutrition Education Program. "Through our teaching in classrooms, we found that it takes more than just knowledge to change, educate people and improve public health.
"So, we wanted to develop young leaders to become advocates for their community and identify ways to make their neighborhoods healthier."
One of the important things the project hopes to emphasize is "parent involvement with their children," added nutrition educator JaNessa Willis.
"All the kids here, with our help, are going to prepare a healthy dinner tonight at 5:30 for mom and dad," she said. "This way, the kids are teaching their parents what they learned, and we hope they can take this home to their families to create that behavioral change."
The menu included mango enchiladas, brown rice and a spinach salad with bean, corn, onions and bell peppers.
"We're also doing the Linus project, where they can make blankets for kids who are hospitalized and are in need of something soft and comfortable," Hansen added. "We hope today lets them experience everything 4-H has to offer for the community, and it lets them foster their leadership skills so they can take what they learned today and teach back at their schools."
The project is aimed at students who attend schools in areas that qualify for free and low-cost meal programs. Between 80 and 90 percent of those who attend the Santa Maria-Bonita district schools qualify.
"That means, a lot of families may have huge barriers to finding and paying for healthy foods in their neighborhoods, and a lot of students get the majority of their meals on campus," Klisch said.
District Superintendent Luke Ontiveros stopped by Liberty Elementary to take a quick peek at the group of 13 children -- led by UC Cal Fresh Community Education Specialist Lisa Paniagua -- digging through soil for earthworms and separating recyclables, trash and leftover food into three separate bins.
"Having this kind of education absolutely builds relevance to what they can do in the future," Ontiveros said. "Today's activities take things beyond classrooms, textbooks and brings them to life through hands-on learning. There's no better way to learn and continue progressing their education."
Paniagua and her partner Leonel Palomarez, a UC Cal Fresh garden nutrition extender and compost expert, taught the kids about the process of garden composting using a combination of nitrogen and carbon sources.
"They learned about recycling materials that would otherwise be going to a landfill," Palomarez said. "We also did some worm composting, which takes leftover food scraps, putting them into the soil, letting them decompose which the worms later can eat.
"We tell the kids: We feed the worms our food that feeds them, and in turn, their compost feeds the soil which later feeds our food that feeds us. It's a full circle."
Bruce Elementary fifth-grader Sara Casanova said she's no stranger to soil, plants and earthworms. In fact, she often helps out in her school's garden.
"I was so excited to work with worms," Sara said. "I already knew they were good for the earth."
Her favorite activity Saturday was dividing up the garbage into recyclables and compost.
"I'm going to teach my parents something new today," she added. "I'm also excited to make enchiladas for them because my mom makes them on Sundays. But this time, I'm going to make them for her."
Paniagua's gardening class also included a "mini waste audit." The kids took all the trash, sorted through it and placed it into three different bins -- one for garbage, recycling and compost.
She held up a paper plate that was thrown into the trash.
"The reason why this can't be recycled is because this has a shiny, glossy lining on it around the edge," Paniagua explained. "So many people don't know this. Just buy the cheap ones with no gloss and double up."
"Every year this gets more fun," she added. "The kids learned quickly what goes where immediately. I just said, 'On your mark, get set, go!' and they just sorted through everything.
"I never saw so many kids excited to dig through trash before," she joked.