Putting More Cooks in the Kitchen

Recruiting Now! Recruitment for iCook participants in the Dover, Orono and Ellsworth area is under way for children ages 9 and 10, and the adult responsible for preparing the majority of the children’s meals. Each pair will be compensated $80 over the study period. Participants need to be free from food allergies, be willing to eat from all food groups, and have computer and Internet access at home. To learn more or enroll in the study, call (207) 581-3315 or visit at www.facebook.com/icook4h.

Researchers at the University of Maine are leading a five-state, five-year, $2.5 million USDA study to increase youth health, and they are using an unlikely tool to do so — cooking.

The project, called iCook, is focused on improving culinary skills, promoting family meals and increasing physical activity.

The study, which is being conducted at the five land grant universities in Maine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia, is designed to test the effect of a two-year intervention on body mass index (BMI) of youth.

In Maine, a team of researchers, students and University of Maine Cooperative Extension faculty members are being led by Adrienne White, human nutrition professor, and Kate Yerxa, statewide educator for nutrition and physical activity.

White says. “Maintaining weight within the normal percentile curves is what would be desired, as well as increasing culinary skills and eating together as a family.”

Once participants are recruited, they will randomly be assigned to a control or treatment group. Half the participants will be in the treatment group and will attend six two-hour-long classes every other week for the first 12 weeks of the project and have access to the iCook website, a place to share and track progress, throughout the two-year period.

Assessments and classes will start in September. The classes will include topics such as proper food handling and preparation, nutrition groups and structured mealtimes. Cooking and exercises will be done during classes. Extension nutrition staff, 4-H leaders and UMaine students will teach the Maine lessons.

The inspiration for iCook came from a similar project led by White called Maker of Meals that focused on adults who prepared meals for children in Washington County.

White, community partners led by Colin Windhorst and students, including Douglas Mathews, a human nutrition doctoral student from Sanford, Maine, conducted the pilot study that laid the groundwork for the USDA project.

Mathews, who is using iCook as the focus of his Ph.D. project on program evaluation, was part of the grant-writing process and now helps manage iCook across all five states. Mathews also worked with Rainstorm Consulting of Orono to create the iCook website which he describes as a “mashup of some of the more popular social media sites,” with sharing features similar to those on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

The website is designed to create an online community connecting participants from the five states through blogging, chatting and sharing media. Researchers will monitor the children’s growth, development and health habits through website activity, online surveys and physical measurements.

All participants — those in the control and treatment groups — will complete surveys and have physical measurements taken four times throughout the study. Measurements for the children include height, weight and waist circumference. Children and adults will have their blood pressure taken during the four screenings.

“Ultimately we want this curriculum to not sit on a shelf,” White says, adding the community-participatory approach to the study should help increase the sustainability of the team’s work.

White says culinary skills and eating together as a family are considered important aspects of following a nutritious diet. She says researchers have shown adolescents are less likely to engage in deviant behavior or to have eating disorders when their families eat together.