Head Start fuels students’ futures

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October 1, 2021 by HCDE-Texas

Head Start and Early Head Start programs support children’s growth in a positive learning environment through various services, including early learning and development, family well-being, and health. HCDE Head Start Nutrition Services Coordinator Monica Niles highlights the benefits of children’s nourishment through a balanced diet.

Monica Niles poses for a photograph, September 29, 2021

Tell me about your role with Head Start.

MN: “I’ve been here about a year, and my role is to ensure that we’re providing nutritious meals and engaging in other nutritional services. When families need accommodation or [other] resources, I work with our team to ensure we give them the best quality services and advice. Twice a year, we do what’s called a growth assessment. We take each student’s height and weight, and based on that information, we take what is called a body mass index (BMI). We will reach out to families and inform them of [potential] reasons their student scored as obese or malnourished, discuss whether it’s hereditary, or if there are some lifestyle changes they can make. We may suggest more outside play, incorporating fruits and vegetables, and minimizing [things like] soda intake.”

Why did you choose this role at HCDE Head Start?

MN: “I started my career in hospitals working as a patient services manager in the nutrition department. I worked closely with the dietitians and nutritionists to ensure patient satisfaction and nutritional needs. I spent about four or five years in healthcare, but, in my time there, I saw a need for culturally integrating nutrition early on in our lives. That guided my interest in [exploring] how nutrition can be combined with education in early childhood. That got the ball rolling for my interest in HCDE. I love that no matter what the day looks like or how overwhelming it can be, it’s still rooted in my ability to provide a service that will impact a generation nutritionally.”

What are your primary goals for the year?

MN: “Bringing it back to some of the challenges we had in the past with our outreach, I hope to obtain more parent and community involvement during these nutrition assessments to discuss lifestyle recommendations. When we go back to in-person meetings, parent involvement could very well be showing up to all nutritional informative zoom classes or meetings, or even [hearing] their feedback [on] what seems to be the need. Also, [I want to] make sure that they are going to their doctors’ appointments, talking with the nutritionist at their WIC appointments, and staying on top of their all-around holistic needs and resources for that child’s growth.”

What positive impact have you seen nutrition services contribute to students’ lives, and how does it make you feel to be a part of this?

MN: “During COVID, it was really rewarding to still be able to provide meals, even if [it was not] in a classroom setting or didn’t look like family-style meal services. We did a drive-up service of to-go meals. Even though [students] were learning virtually, we still ensured that they received a nutritious meal three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and a snack according to their nutritional restrictions or needs. It’s been very rewarding to know that whatever the circumstances, we’re here to play a major role in their ability to grow and develop and achieve and maintain a healthy weight.”

What are you most looking forward to this year?

MN: “I’m really excited about getting back to family-style meal services. As things progress, we’ll take safety measures to get back to observing them during meal services, seeing their fine motor skills [put] to [use when] making their plates, and [seeing them] engage in conversation about the food. Specifically at our Early Head Start centers, because many more of our centers have the younger babies now.”

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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