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Meal time: WVU seeks families to participate in multi-state study

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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

Children ages 9 and 10, and the people who cook for them, are needed for a research project and 4-H program conducted in Morgantown and Martinsburg.

West Virginia University is participating in iCook 4-H, a program studying healthy weight in children with the goal of promoting healthy families by getting youth and parents to cook, play and eat together. 

iCook will promote cooking skills and family meals in an attempt to prevent obesity.

Researchers at universities in Maine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia are working together because they have successfully collaborated in the past, said principal investigator Melissa Olfert, an assistant professor in human nutrition at WVU.

The five-year study is funded by a $2.5 million USDA grant. Now begins a two-year-long research project. 

The goal of recruiters is to have 100 pairs participate in each state. More people are needed, Olfert said. 

To qualify, participants can't have food allergies or restrictions limiting physical activity. They have to be willing to eat from all food groups and must have computer and Internet access at home. Children must turn 9 by Dec. 31.

"This is a good age," Olfert said. "They're moving into being independent and they can learn about safety and how important it is to create meals from scratch. They latch on to how nice it is to have the family communicating at the table over a meal prepared from scratch." 

At four intervals, all participants will have their blood pressure taken and will complete surveys about food and eating together, cooking skills, physical activity and quality of life. Children will have their height, weight and waist measured, and some may be asked to wear a physical activity monitor for a week. Participants will be compensated $80 for completing the four assessments.

Half the group will be selected to attend six two-hour-long classes in cooking, family interaction and physical activity at Morgantown or Martinsburg.

At home, these families will post videos demonstrating recipes and ways they're being active on a website, tracking their progress over the two-year period. Cameras will be provided.

"The curriculum has been fully developed from a pilot study and research teams giving input," Olfert said. "It focuses largely on culinary skills, recipes and recipe manipulation, such as what to substitute if you don't have an ingredient. We want kids to know measuring, a little of food science and food technology, math skills and nutrition education."

How to cook is not all they'll be learning.

"Family meal time is becoming less and less," Olfert said. "It's a huge component of these cooking sessions. WVU Extension has put together a wonderful program that has a conversation starter notebook —that will be used throughout the five states, which is exciting — if you don't know what to talk about. We practice this in class. They do the cooking and then partake of the food they created."

The last component of the classes is physical activity.

"We've come up with very fun physical activities, sort of games, that will have the kids interacting," Olfert said. At home "we want to see them videotaping and taking still pictures of themselves with their friends and parents being physically active. Every week we'll set goals and at home between the lessons they'll upload content of what they've accomplished over those two weeks."

One of the goals of the study is to develop a program that will disseminate information on cooking, nutrition, family interaction and physical activity.

"The end product we're expecting will be the full package, a tool-kit driven program that any Extension or non-Extension agent, 4-H or non 4-H group can deliver. We want to have it available where 4-H isn't available," Olfert said. "The website will support the curriculum of the six different classes. The tools will be created and the website developed and any know-how at that point will be available to any community that wants to have it."

To sign up or for more information, call 304-293-8575 or e-mail wv@icook4h.com.