UW Extension program, Casper College class boost elementary students’ nutrition

Casper College students Brian Hiser and Hannah Mica put cocoa mix into small bags to be given to Casper elementary students.
Casper College students Brian Hiser and Hannah Mica put cocoa mix into small bags to be given to Casper elementary students.


This class project gave Casper College students a warm feeling and a hot, nutritious drink for more than 650 Natrona County elementary students during their spring break March 25-April 1.

Casper College students, college staff, and volunteers took turns in early March in an assembly line putting together a shelf stable cocoa mix recipe from the University of Wyoming Extension Cent$ible Nutrition Program (CNP) cookbook.

The Casper nonprofit Wyoming Food for Thought (WFFT) delivered the bags to various Natrona County Title 1 schools before the district’s spring break. Someone at each school (not all schools participate) decides how many students need food bags and lets WFFT know the number. Bags will be anonymously stowed in elementary students’ backpacks by school personnel while students are away at lunch.

Calcium Added to Diet

Volunteers scooped cocoa, sugar and, most importantly, instant milk into large, clear plastic containers from which the mix was bagged.

Cocoa is not a usual food bag item WFFT provides during its weekly Friday deliveries to schools, but CNP educators identified calcium as a vital ingredient missing in the Friday food bags, so a mix was made with instant milk.

The spring break effort was a service-learning project by students in Casper College instructor Kelsey Phillips principles of nutrition class.

Such a project brings course content to life, she says.

“You can lecture, you can show heart-wrenching videos, but when you go out in the community and see you have to make 500 packets of milk to send home with kids who have no milk at home, it starts bringing it to life,” says Phillips, an environmental and natural sciences instructor.

Students analyze the nutritional content of what’s being sent home and compare with commercially available products.

Hungry Students

CNP educator Julie Dwyer was taking the Casper College course as a refresher class, and an alphabet soup of sorts – CC, CNP and WFFT – came together to help feed kids.

CNP educators teach the value of nutrition to elementary students in Title I schools.

There are hungry kids in schools.

“It’s true,” says Dwyer. “I go into the schools every week, and Monday mornings are the worst. Those kids come in hungry. How are you supposed to be ready to learn without anything in your stomach? They see me in the halls and are excited. ‘She’s the food lady. She’ll teach us about nutrition but at the end of the lesson we are going to get a snack.’”

Hunger can cause behavioral changes in students, notes Missy Nack, Lincoln Elementary school counselor, such as emotional outbursts of anger or sadness, lethargy, and the inability to focus.

They may show signs of fear in activities or subjects with which they are usually comfortable with their performance, she says.  Or, irrational fears may set in when wanting to take new risks.

“If the body is not functioning properly because of lack of food and nutrition, it is hard to manage emotions and complete the tasks set out for us to learn and then perform,” says Nack.

Many Reasons for Nutrition Deficit

Reasons for hunger vary: unemployment, too many mouths to feed and a lack of resources, or drug and alcohol addiction issues. Food may be available but what there is might not be very nutritious for young children, says Dwyer.

“It could be that mom and dad are working as hard as they can but can’t seem to get food on the table.  Another issue we see is families are too proud to ask for help.”

Dwyer said CNP educators present lessons in 11 schools across the county.

“Growing up here, I know it’s not something you talk about, there is a stigma that comes with asking for help,” she says. “Oftentimes parents fall into a rut where if they can provide their families with at least something on the table that is enough, nutritional value of the food takes a backseat.”

Dwyer, who at one time was a single mother and faced issues, says she understands.

“Sometimes parents just don’t realize what the outcome can be in their kids when they grow up on a diet that is lacking in nutritional value,” she says. “That’s why I love my job. I get to educate these parents and kids and hopefully make a change for some of them.”

Reduces Barriers for Help

WFFT director Jamie Purcell says her organization asks schools for the number of bags needed for children who school personnel believe may need a food bag over the weekend. Children or parents never have to ask, and WFFT never asks for a name, Purcell says.

“For many living in poverty, not a lot of dignity comes from asking for help,” she says. “If you have to get food stamps, you have to prove 10 different directions you need them. We wanted our program to be unique and focus on the outcome of getting food to kids.”
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