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High School Students In Underserved South Coast Community Learn Healthy Habits In Unique Way

It can be challenging to encourage high school students to eat healthy and stay fit. That’s especially true for schools with low-income students where there are high rates of obesity and family histories of diabetes. One such high school on the South Coast is helping their students kick the bad habits and turn to a healthier lifestyle.

The bell rings at Hueneme High School in Oxnard to signal that classes are over. Instead of heading home, a group of about a dozen students heads to a cooking class. But it’s not just any cooking class, says 17-year-old Melysa Ayala.

“It really helps me learn more about healthy eating and healthy cooking. It teaches me a lot about how to be healthy and what not to eat and what to eat,” she said.

Frances Adams teaches this class as part of her role as HealthCorps’ Living Labs Coordinator. The nonprofit HealthCorps, created by TV talk show host Dr. Oz and his wife, funds this health and wellness program that places Adams and other coordinators into schools in underserved communities throughout the country for two years. HealthCorps says since Living Labs began in 2003, 261 coordinators have impacted nearly two million students nationwide.

“We go into really high-need high schools to teach nutrition, fitness and mental resilience,” Adams said.

The cooking club is learning how to make a healthier version of French toast that Adams calls “Fit French Toast.” The recipe substitutes strawberries for syrup and whole wheat bread for white bread.

“You don’t have to be just eating salad to be healthy," she said. "How can we make the food that they already love a little bit healthier, so they actually want to eat it and will hopefully go and continue to make these recipes.”

The teens wash strawberries. They slice them. They beat eggs in a small bowl and add low-fat milk. They dip the wheat bread into the mixture and cook it on a griddle.

“You would imagine it to be too healthy. It’s not going to be good. But once you try it, it’s actually really good. And you want to go for double,” said 17-year-old Melissa Castro.

She said this cooking club has actually changed her eating habits.

“Instead of eating beans and rice at home, I cut the meat and I learned how to make new healthier foods. I cut the portion and added the healthy stuff to it,” Castro said. 

In addition to this weekly cooking club, Adams runs a monthly Zumba class and Take Two Tuesdays -- which is two minutes of mindful breathing. She holds interactive lunchtime demonstrations. In one demo, students learn about healthy snacking by building their own trail mix.

“We’re not trying to go into these classes and lecture them about what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, what they need to be doing. But doing fun demonstrations with them and really engaging with the students in fun and interactive ways, so that they can see health can be fun. It’s not just some adult telling you to eat your vegetables,” Adams said.

Hueneme High School Principal Gary Mayeda says he believes Adams’ presence has made a difference in students’ food choices during lunch. 

“I see a surprisingly high number of students who are picking things like salads and fruits and vegetables. That’s an obvious place where she has made an impact,” he said.

The Fit French toast is ready to be consumed by these high school students, like Castro who now has an appetite for healthy food.

"It’s really good," she said.

The hope is that these high school students use the tools they learn from Adams to improve their physical and mental health and spread these healthy choices to their families and to the community.