Published June 29, 2020

Rutgers Culture of Health School Program builds nutrition and fitness literacy with Horizon Foundation grant

In the field of health care, Rutgers has repeatedly proven itself to be a global leader—not only through groundbreaking coronavirus research but also through programs that advance personal health to build stronger, more resilient communities. A recent $100,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey puts that leadership in the spotlight by supporting a vital component of the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative (NJHKI). The grant enables a partnership between NJHKI and Rutgers Cooperative Extension, ensuring that children and their families will continue to benefit from the cutting-edge work of the Rutgers Culture of Health School Program (RCHSP).

Rutgers Culture of Health School Program co-principal investigators Erin Comollo (left) and Sara Elnakib.
Rutgers Culture of Health School Program co-principal investigators Erin Comollo (left) and Sara Elnakib.

Based on the idea that children are naturally drawn to specific social and cultural influences, most easily seen in the appeal of video games and other interactive media, the RCHSP harnesses those influences to empower healthy choices. The program fosters and promotes lifestyles centered around physical activity and nutritional literacy—both being vital to the healthy development of young people.

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program utilized a field trip format aimed at two age groups: kindergarteners and 7th-graders. Students from Greater Brunswick Charter Schools were invited to the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health twice a month to participate in entertaining activities that boosted fitness and nutritional literacy. Within this framework, Erin Comollo and Sara Elnakib, co-principal investigators for the RCHSP, approached the Horizon Foundation for funding to expand the program.

But in March, the coronavirus made in-person field trips impossible. Comollo GSE’19 and Elnakib COOK’07, SPH’13 had to roll with the punches and fluidly re-engineered their proposal, arriving at a new format focused on virtual interaction. Both age groups will still have ample opportunity to participate, and the program will widen its reach into other school districts. The difference is that students will now discover an array of technology channels that will increase their awareness of the importance of physical activity and proper nutrition.

“We are looking forward to delivering a program that will be engaging and fun and will instill healthy habits among New Jersey children,” says Comollo, program development administrator for NJHKI. “We’ll use digital platforms to deliver lesson content, which will enable students to engage in a wide range of activities. They’ll be able to do things like create e-portfolios to submit photos of their recipe creations and take part in virtual physical activity assessments and challenges.”

Elnakib similarly points to the strengths that have emerged from the redesign, such as lively online games geared toward kindergarten-level players. She credits the Horizon Foundation for allowing her and Comollo the space to develop these innovations.

“We are so appreciative of the Horizon Foundation not just for their generosity but for their flexibility,” says Elnakib, an educator in the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Department of Family and Community Health Sciences. “As grant providers, they were very understanding of our evolving needs and open to the changes we needed to make. The result is that both age groups we’re working with will have enriching experiences at pivotal stages of their development.”

Both project leaders have devoted much of their careers to understanding and improving how children learn about fitness and nutrition. Comollo combines a doctorate in education with more than twelve years of experience as an elementary school teacher, and Elnakib is a registered dietitian with a keen interest in the use of technology and social media to disseminate wellness messages. Their long-term plans include making the Rutgers Culture of Health School Program “sustainable and spreadable across the state,” says Comollo, “as well as launching a teacher professional development summit to support schools in their own implementation of the program.”

“With this generous grant, the Horizon Foundation adds momentum to one of New Jersey’s most important health care initiatives,” says Rutgers University Foundation president Nevin Kessler. “The Rutgers Culture of Health School Program is creating a national model for improving young people’s lives and well-being. It’s an example of the positive impact made possible when corporations and their philanthropic arms collaborate with Rutgers to improve the human condition.”