2019-03-01 / Spotlight

Building Healthy Bodies

with Catie Simpson, SNAP-Ed nutrition educator
By Robyn Passante

Catie Simpson wishes every preschool and elementary school classroom had a kitchen.

“I think cooking with kids is extremely important,” says Simpson, the SNAP-Ed nutrition educator for the Family and Child Health Project at Penn State. Allowing children to handle, smell and cook with new foods builds their bravery to try unfamiliar dishes, she says. “And it’s also just an awesome tool for any teacher. There’s fractions in there, there’s science, history, you can get political with food; I just think it’s an important topic you can use to explore a lot of different areas.”

A graduate of State High’s culinary arts program, Simpson spent a couple months at the Culinary Institute of America before returning to her hometown, where she earned a Penn State degree in 2015 in Human Development and Family Studies with a focus on early child development.  

She’s combined both loves through her work for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education's Healthy Bodies Project, where she gets to introduce new foods and nutrition basics to children as young as 3 at preschools and elementary-level programs in SNAP-eligible locations. That’s determined by census data, where more than 50 percent of children in an area qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The project works with schools and afterschool programs in places like Philipsburg, Centre Hall, Dubois, Matternville and Bellefonte.

Simpson has learned there’s a sad irony about where many food-insecure children live. “It’s quite astonishing actually because the kiddos who live in these rural areas are surrounded by lots of farms, agriculture, but they are not the ones who are really being exposed to those kind of produce and unique items.”

To reach as many children as possible, Simpson and her co-workers train teachers in how to implement Families Understanding Nutrition (F.U.N.), which allows the tiny department — she is one of just three full-time employees — to expand its reach. The curriculum is currently taught in 56 preschool classrooms in the region.

When school’s out, Simpson heads up the Summer Food Service Program in State College, which last year fed more than 1,500 kids free lunches in sites around State College, mostly public parks, which deleted the possible embarrassment of being singled out as food insecure.

“A lot of what we try to do is just try to break down the stigma of food assistance, and explain how you can’t guess whether someone is food insecure just by looking at them.”

NUTRITION NEEDS Food insecurity isn’t as simple as not having enough food. “You could have enough money to buy ramen for the week. You’re not going hungry. But you are still considered food insecure because you are not able to purchase food that is nourishing. And it’s also not something that’s stagnant. A household could be fine toward the beginning of the month but then by the end, if they’re living paycheck to paycheck, they might struggle. So it’s not just a one size fits all, which I feel like is the perception a lot of people have about food assistance.”

GIVING BACK Local food pantries often have a plethora of canned vegetables and pasta, but those items are typically what food-insecure people already are eating. Simpson would love to see more donors give fresh or frozen produce, dairy and other items that would expand and improve a person’s diet. “Their website will tell you things they’re in need of.  … They have freezers, and fresh food is donate-able. You can call, and they’ll let you know what they need,” she says. “They also give you a receipt too, so if you’re an organization who has leftover food, they’ll give you a receipt for how many pounds you donate.”

TEAM PLAYERS This year’s Summer Food Service Program will be popping up every weekday from June 17 to Aug. 23 at different parks, as well as Schlow Centre Region Library, which last summer fed an average of 60 kids each week. “Parks & Rec has been a wonderful partner, they’re extremely accommodating, they’ve already reserved the pavilions for this summer. This year they actually have this Rec on the Go van that has all sorts of equipment and staff to run games with the kids, which is really awesome.”

HOMETOWN FAVORITE Sharing her favorite restaurant in town was too much of a loaded question for Simpson, but she did dish on a particular menu item she loves. “I will always have a spot in my heart for The Waffle Shop home fries. I compare literally every other home fry, hash brown, potato, breakfast potato to The Waffle Shop.”

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