It’s lunchtime at the Renew Cultural Arts Academy, and that means a group of medical students from Louisiana State University are sitting down with kindergarden, first and second graders to talk about the food that’s on their plates.
“So what do you use your protein for?”
“Makes you strong!”
“Makes you strong. Got to have big muscles, huh? Can you show me your muscle? All right, there you go.”
About a dozen medical students are equipped with colored building blocks: red for protein, green for carbohydrates, and yellow for fat.
Jaden Kifer, a second year medical student at LSU and a co-leader of the Smart Café, explains: “The concept that we’re trying to build today is that proteins are going to help build your muscles, carbohydrates are rapid energy that you can eat right away, and fat — if they know what it is — we try to relate it to a piggy bank; it’s good energy you can use for later."
Kifer says Smart Café “stands for students mentors advising real time choices about food and eating. It’s kind of a long acronym, so we just like calling it Smart Café.”
“What we’re trying to do is actually change habits — so they get in the habit of choosing to get the health food from the lunch line and then hopefully at home choosing to eat healthy food, encouraging their parents to buy healthier food,” explains Kate Howe, who is also a medical student at LSU and the other co-leader of Smart Café. Howe is also getting a masters degree in public health. But before this, Howe taught middle school for four years in New Orleans.
“One thing I would noticed with my kids is that they would snack all day — on noodles or sunflower seeds or hot chips. And then they wouldn’t eat the school lunch. They’d come through the school line, they’d get their tray. You know it’s all Federally funded or reduced price lunch. They would literally walk out of the lunch line and put it in the trash can.”
Howe says her students were filling up on salt and sugar but not eating anything they need to grow, like protein or vitamins. Now she aims to change that.
“If we can get kids eating healthy food, down the road that’s going to mean less cardiovascular disease, it’s going to mean less diabetes, it’s going to mean less colon cancer. It’s going to have a lot of really long term effects that in the end will make population healthier as a whole, and cut back on health care costs.”
Howe’s goal of changing New Orleans’ health over the long term is part of the reason she’s a Schweitzer Fellow. The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is a national program with the goal of developing leaders who are dedicated and skilled in addressing the health needs of underserved communities.
“What the program tries to do is teach these medical students and law students and dental students that you can have a career, and your career can be fulfilling, but you can still serve,” says Pritesh Ghandi, the Chairman for the New Orleans Schweitzer Fellowship Advisory Board and a former Schweitzer fellow. “The idea is that once you’ve gone through the fellowship, you are a fellow for life, and it is the expectation that you will be a change-maker in your community. That you will enter your community, you will work hand-in-hand with community leaders to develop and implement sustainable, impactful programs.”
There are currently 12 Schweitzer fellows in New Orleans — from all of the city’s universities. Fellows propose, design and implement a project which focuses on the physical or emotional health of communities in need. About a quarter of this year’s Schweitzer Fellows have projects relating to obesity and nutrition.
“They commit to this fellowship for their entire life. They commit to making sustainable programs that have outcomes that are measurable and that will make a difference in the lives of those that they serve.”
Schweitzer Fellow Kate Howe says to think of it as a breeding ground where good ideas become real programs. “Being a Schweitzer fellow actually gives me the skills that I need to change the way people behave and improve their health outcomes.”