Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.

This article should not be reprinted for inclusion in any publication for sale without author's explicit permission. Anyone may view,
reproduce or store copy of this article for personal, non-commercial use as allowed by the "Fair Use" limitations (sections 107 and 108)
of the U.S. Copyright law. For any other use and for reprints, contact article's author who may impose usage fee.. See also Academic
Exchange Quarterly electronic version copyright clearance CURRENT VERSION COPYRIGHT © MMVIII ACADEMIC EXCHANGE QUARTERLY




Service Learning in Nutrition Education


Alicia Sinclair, Queensborough Community College, NY

Lana Zinger, Queensborough Community College, NY


Sinclair, Ed.D, CHES, is an Assistant Professor of Health and Nutrition, and Zinger, Ed.D. R.D., CHES, is an Assistant Professor of Health, Nutrition and Online Education in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Dance.




Community college students in an urban setting were recruited in this pilot project and guided through a local supermarket and taught how to read food labels. Each student was provided with a grocery store voucher to purchase healthy foods. Following the supermarket tour, students participated in a “cooking” class. Students then went out into their communities to conduct similar grocery tours and cooking demos. As a result of this project, students reported success in applying the knowledge and skills learned from one setting to another.




Service learning integrates academic learning and relevant community service with classroom instruction, focusing on critical, reflective thinking and personal civic responsibility. Although definitions of service learning may differ slightly, the hallmarks of service learning are applied “real” projects or work that provide a beneficial service to organizations and/or individuals outside of the classroom and reinforce course-related skills and content.  This project helped college students translate nutrition education into community action.


Service: Students serve their communities by offering their knowledge, skills and time.


Learning: Students get to know their communities, develop new skills and integrate knowledge of course materials into an authentic setting.


This paper demonstrates how one program used service learning pedagogy to teach  community college students how to read food labels, select healthy foods, as well as skills to help them price compare different foods at a local supermarket while increasing visibility for nutrition education.  What was significant in this pilot project was students’ abilities to apply the knowledge and skills learned in one setting to another. 




The purposes of this project:


  1. To provide students with basic knowledge of how to make health promoting choices when food shopping.
  2. To empower students to implement behavioral strategies learned when on their own.
  3. To teach students how to teach others what they’ve learned.
  4. To determine if this pilot program can be formalized into something done on a regular basis.





Target Population


Queensborough Community College is located in the borough of Queens, where more than 2.2 million people reside in dozens of distinct and unique neighborhoods that make up the most diverse county in the nation.  Queensborough is a primary force for educating and supporting these residents. 


Almost 20,000 degree and continuing education students attend the College each year.  These students come from across the borough and city as well as from more than 140 countries.  Almost half are foreign born, and 46% speak a language other than English at home.  This diversity of backgrounds and tapestry of cultures makes Queensborough a unique place to study, and the College takes great pride in taking part in the education of new Americans.


The ethnic composition of the student body reflects the diversity of Queens;  students are divided fairly evenly such that approximately one quarter are Asian, African-American, Hispanic and Caucasian. Sixty-two percent qualify for need-based financial aid. 



Why Service Learning?


Review of service learning literature from a health and nutrition education context indicates that service learning pedagogy helps students become better advocates of nutrition and health awareness outside of the classroom.


A study by Litke (2002) on the outcomes of service learning found that both higher an lower performing students clearly believed that the course had an impact on personal growth.  Also significant was the students’ abilities to apply the knowledge and skills they learned from one setting to another. 


Palmer (1997) reported that real learning occurs when the course content and the experiences of the students intersect.  Service learning as part of a course provides students with real world experiences that enhance course learning objectives.


In 2002, Moley et al, reported that students who participated in service learning showed expected changes in civic attitudes and an increase in self-rating in regards to their skills for community engagement.  They also reported that service learning gave students opportunities to develop social and problem solving skills including communication and conflict resolution. 


In 1998, Kezar wrote that, “in the broadest sense, service learning is a form of active, experiential learning that utilizes service in order to ground the learning process”. 



Student Response to Service Learning


National studies suggest that students in effective serving learning courses improve academically, increase attendance in class, and develop personal and social responsibility.  Service learning in our College consisted of recruiting students from our introductory health courses.  Student participation was voluntary and students who did participate were given $25.00 grocery store vouchers.  This project was during the weekends of the fall 2007 semester.  Students met three faculty members at a local supermarket.  Students were then divided into small groups and assigned a faculty member who conducted the supermarket tour.  The supermarket tour entailed:


The tour started with a short introduction by the faculty with information about healthy nutrition and the role of fat, especially saturated fat, in the diet. Next, the group walked along the supermarket aisles and the focus was on a number of product groups (e.g. milk products, butter and oils, etc). The faculty discussed the fat content and the kind of fat [saturated or (poly) unsaturated] in different products. The groups then walked through the aisles and learned how to practice reading nutrition labels. They then went to those parts of the store where foods without labels — such as produce, fish and fresh meats — are sold. Here we discussed the nutritional value of a type of food. The groups then went to the deli counter and the bakery. During the tour, faculty provided a general store layout for shoppers. They pointed out the freshest foods in the market — the produce, fish and fresh meat — are usually along the perimeter of the store, while processed foods dominate the aisles.

During the tour several educational methods were used by the faculty. Information was given using posters, handouts and product samples. To stimulate active participation, questions were asked by the faculty, participants were given small tasks, games were played and participants were offered products to taste. Then, participants were encouraged to read the nutrition products. On average, the tour took 90 minutes. At the end of the tour the participants received written information to take home, i.e. pamphlets about fat intake, recipes and healthy nutrition in general.


The main purpose of the tour is to help participants to better understand the nutrition information on products in order to learn about the fat content of their food choices and to show them possible low-fat alternatives.


As part of the nutritional experience students learned:

  • How to read food labels
  • How to spot and discover nutritional power packed food
  • How to get the most for your money
  • Nutritional content of food
  • Healthy, quick snacks
  • Meal ideas
  • How to choose seasonally, locally produced food
  • And how basic, healthy ingredients can be transformed into a delicious healthy meal the whole family will love.


Once the supermarket tour was finished, students and faculty went back to the college where students sampled unfamiliar healthy foods they would not have normally purchased.  The student “tasting menu” included:


¨      Low fat soy milk

¨      Hummus and pita bread

¨      Low fat cheeses

¨      Low fat Greek yogurt

¨      Baked chips

¨      Root vegetable chips


After the tasting, faculty members did a cooking demonstration to show the students healthy cooking techniques incorporating some of the new foods students learned about while on the grocery store tour.  These techniques were geared towards busy college students who are pressed for time and have limited budgets.  Some of what was prepared included:


¨      Vegetable turkey chili

¨      Grilled chicken and avocado wraps

¨      Vegetarian stew

¨      White bean and pasta casserole



Students were required to select a minimum of three people such as another student, a family member or friend and conduct a similar supermarket tour and cooking demonstration without supervision from a faculty member.  Their experiences were then recorded in a “reflection journal”.  Students were required to submit these journals at the end of the semester in place of taking a final exam.  The journal content was more than a mere log of events.  Instead, students related their experiences and reflections as they related to course content and objectives. 


The following are some excerpts from students’ reflection journals:


Participating in the grocery store service- learning project with professor Zinger was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  During the past few years, I have often wondered what I should look out for when trying to select healthy products.  Thanks to this project, I now can go into a grocery store and pick up a product like bread and know exactly what to look for.


The Waldbaums tour was an excellent learning experience in so many ways.  I learned all about the various tricks that companies and food marketers use to pass off certain foods as “healthy”.  For example, I learned that even if a product label says, “No Trans Fat”, I still have to read the ingredient’s list.  If the list says the words, “partially hydrogenated” then the product does contain trans fats.  I learned that the FDA allows food companies to claim zero grams of trans fats if a product has .5 gram or less per serving.


The one thing I enjoyed the most about all of this was the large amount of interactivity.  I was able to ask questions and be taught at an almost one-on-one level.  It was great to have someone show us first hand what is right and wrong with foods rather than just tell us in class and send us off on our own.  Now, when I go to the grocery store with my family or friends I’ll be able to teach them what I learned.


The demonstration in the classroom taught me not to judge all healthy food by how it looks.  The bean and pasta casserole was incredible and the products are something I will continue to buy for the rest of my life!  This demonstration showed that it is possible to have parties with healthy foods and drinks. 


I plan on helping my mother with her food shopping in the future to prevent her from buying the wrong things.  In fact, I will be encouraging everyone I know to read all food labels very closely to make sure the products is healthy.


I have already spread the word regarding the health issues discussed during the grocery tour.  I tell my family who lives in California to convert their 2% milk to 1% or skim.  I’m trying to reach as many friends and family members as possible!



Challenges and barriers to using service learning


While we found service learning to have many benefits, there were also some challenges and barriers that we encountered, such as:


  1. Student transportation to supermarket site. For future service learning projects, we will all meet on campus and then take a campus van to the site.  This will decrease lateness and attrition.
  2. Time required of students outside of class.  In the future, we would use class time versus student free time. 
  3. Heavy crowds at supermarket site.  In the future, we would plan to meet during off-peak times as arranged with the store manager. 


Overall Impact


Through the process of setting up and facilitating this service learning project, QCC faculty members and students have an increasing presence within the community.  For example, students reported that recipients of this service learning project  had higher interest in personal health and nutrition.  It was also reported that recipients were interested in pursuing possible health and nutrition career pathways by signing up for continuing education classes at QCC.


In the classroom, faculty members reported improved camaraderie among students and among faculty members involved in this project.  Faculty noticed student attentiveness while in class was improved because students were more engaged as witnessed by higher quality questions, increased participation and overall greater interest in the subject matter.  This project could potentially contribute to healthier schools and communities and better prepared students who possess the skills necessary to teach nutrition and health.




The International Partnership for Service Learning and Leadership. IPSL Declaration of Principles. 2006


The National Service Learning Clearinhouse Web site.


Making and impact on out-of-school time: A guide for corporation for national service programs engaged in after school, summer, and weekend activities for young people. Wellesley, MA: National Institutue on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. 2000.


Kezar, A.J. (1998). Exploring new avenues for leading community colleges: the paradox of participatory models. Community College Review. 25(4). 75-87.


Litke, RA. Do all students “get it”?: Comparing students’ reflections to course performance. Mich J Community Service Learning. 2002;8(2):27-34.


Moley,B.E., MeFarland,M., Miron, D., et al. Changes in college students’ attitudes and intentions for civic involvement as a function of service learning experiences. Mich J Community Service Learning. 2002;9(1):44-51.


Palmer,P. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1997.