UT-Austin nutrition researchers awarded grant to create new digital instruction platform

Maya Wray

A year-long $50,000 grant from Blue Cross and and Blue Shield of Texas will allow UT nutrition experts to develop a new digital platform that gives local teachers access to outdoor instructional resources, according to an April 16 press release from the College of Natural Sciences. 

The resources will initially be available to districts in greater Austin, project leader Jaimie Davis said. She said the program could be expanded to other areas of Texas in the future, and the resources will help K-12 schools incorporate lessons on health and nutrition into their existing curriculums.

“There’s just not a lot of support for teachers in that arena,” said Davis, associate professor of pediatrics. “There’s a need to help consolidate and provide resources and materials for school teachers.”

The program will include a wide range of videos, webinars and other digital tools designed to help teachers create nutrition-based lessons. It will also help schools establish community gardens as a way to teach healthy eating habits. The benefits of such gardens were found by TX Sprouts, another project led by Davis from 2015 to 2020. 

In the TX Sprouts study, 16 Austin area elementary schools were tested on a variety of factors including diet and diet behaviors, childhood obesity, physical activity, and academic performance. The schools were randomly assigned to two groups: an intervention group with a garden plot, or a control group with no garden plot. 

“We discovered that our program could increase vegetable intake, improve glucose control and reduce lipids (and) improve grades,” Davis said. “We had a whole slew of evidence-based things.”

Although TX Sprouts ultimately became too costly to continue, Davis said teachers would still have access to its materials through the new website. 

Nenye Nwaeri, a nutrition senior who volunteered in the TX Sprouts research lab, said she believes the program’s gardening practices were a fun way of teaching kids the value of nutrition.

“It was nice to be in the classroom of children and teach them about composting or what different foods are made up of,” Nwaeri said. “As a nutrition major, these things are so basic and fundamental, but you forget that at a young age, (children) need to learn these things.”

Davis said the success of TX Sprouts led to the creation of a two-semester “nutrition intern” course at UT that allows students to teach nutrition and community gardening lessons at area schools. 

Nutrition sophomore Divya Kashyap said she is interested in taking the course in the future. She said that as a child of immigrant parents, she grew up largely unaware of the value of nutrition until she began to learn it in school.

“What you eat when you’re young, starting when you’re young, can impact your health and the health of your children and your children’s children,” Kashyap said.