Syracuse elementary students have a taste of Puerto Rico

Student Elizabeth Gardner with students from an elementary school
Elizabeth Gardner ’20 (right) leads a Books & Cooks lesson plan at Dr. Weeks Elementary School, where students learned about the culture and cuisine of Puerto Rico.

This spring, fifth grade students at Dr. Weeks Elementary School had a taste of culture and cuisine from Australia, England, New Zealand, Cuba, Iceland, and Puerto Rico with the help of Falk College nutrition students and the Books & Cooks program.

Syracuse University students in the Books & Cooks program introduce local elementary students to cultures around the world through hands-on nutrition lessons that foster literacy and healthy eating. It is housed in the Mary Ann Shaw Center, which brings together Syracuse University faculty, staff, and students in civic service.

In a lesson at Dr. Weeks, students measured and mixed pre-cut fruit, vegetables, and other ingredients to make a delicious Pico de Gallo recipe, a popular snack in Puerto Rico. Nutrition major Elizabeth Gardner ’20, who led the activity, shared that the nutrients from the tomatoes in Pico de Gallo helps people fight off illness.

This past year, Gardner served as the nutrition volunteer coordinator for Books & Cooks and was responsible for recruiting and training volunteers, as well as designing and delivering lesson plans. “By working with Books & Cooks, I came to appreciate the concept of only understanding something when you are able to explain it to someone else. Something I try to impress on my volunteers is to reflect on the way that the experience in the classroom affected them, because the way that we all interact with the students now is teaching us skills that we may use to interact with clients in dietetic counseling.”

The students at Dr. Weeks also learned topics such as MyPlate, which teaches the basics of food groups and healthy portions, as well as food safety and why it’s important to have clean cooking surfaces, clean hands, and wear gloves while preparing food.

“The students at Dr. Weeks love the Books and Cooks program, so much that other fifth grade classes are asking to participate,” says Dr. Tanya Horacek, undergraduate program director for nutrition and the Books & Cooks faculty mentor. “Elizabeth is an effective leader with her peers and facilitates each class session with ease,” she adds.

Gardner started as a volunteer with Books & Cooks in the fall of her freshman year and plans to continue until she graduates. “Through the program, I have learned that volunteering is truly a two-sided experience. Just as much as we positively affect the students we work with, they positively affect us.”

Gardner decided she wanted to become a nutritionist in high school. When it came time to pick a college, “all roads led to Syracuse,” she says. “I wanted a school that exuded pride. From students to faculty to alumni, the orange network is extensive and loud. Falk College offered a nutrition program that now has more than 100 years of existence, hands on teaching, and ample opportunity to become involved in undergraduate research.”

Upon graduation, Gardner plans to work in nutrition-related policy. “I hope to work within the realm of nutrition policy and help address demographic factors that contribute to health disparities.”