Empowering the Next Generation of Girls Through Nutrition and Fitness

Discovering Herself Again Through Nutrition and Fitness

2019 Alabama Schweitzer Fellow Jessica McKenzie rediscovered who she was through physical activity and nutrition. According to Jessica, she experienced a period in her life where she lost herself and gained everything back through working out. To her, working out became an escape from the stress she experienced from her academic studies. When it came to developing her project idea, there was no doubt in her mind that the Birmingham chapter of Girls on the Run was the right site partner for the project. Girls On The Run (GOTR), a national nonprofit organization who aims to instill values, such as confidence and self-esteem, in young girls in grades 3-5 through the sport of running, “aligned with my values”, Jessica explained. The Birmingham chapter, similar to other chapters across the nation, uses a curriculum that not only teaches values but prepares the girls for a 5K run at the end of every semester. Although the curriculum is not geared towards her specifically, Jessica noted that she had learned so much from the curriculum while teaching it. 

A photo of Jessica McKenzie and some of her participants at the Girls on the Run 5K after the Fall 2019 season.
A photo of Jessica McKenzie and some of her participants at the Girls on the Run 5K after the Fall 2019 season.

Using Her Graduate Public Health Experience

In addition to teaching her students using the GOTR curriculum, Jessica included nutrition concepts and lessons to her sessions, such as teaching the students to choose healthy snacks for their practice runs. A graduate student studying Epidemiology at the UAB School of Public Health, Jessica has been able to incorporate her classroom experiences into her project, including the application of the social determinants of health. She recognized that she “had to become creative when trying to increase physical activity and choosing snacks”. She had to become cognizant of the access (of the lack of) that her students had when it came to safe areas for physical activity in their neighborhoods and to grocery and/or corner stores where nutritious food was available. She was also able to utilize her qualitative and quantitative data skills in her project. Jessica’s nutritional knowledge proved to be very valuable to Girls on the Run Birmingham. According to Rachel Letcher, the program manager at GOTR, “the nutrition aspect of Jessica’s project fits in nicely with the physical component of GOTR.” Recently, Jessica’s snack ideas were included in all of the GOTR coaches’ binders and being shared online across GOTR’s social media channels after program changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A photo of Jessica introducing fun, nutritious snacks.
Jessica introduces fun, nutritious snacks.

Lessons Learned and Playing Her Part

When Jessica first began her project, she was optimistic that her students would immediately like the snack choices she picked for them, but that was not the case. But as time went on, she listened to the girls’ needs and had them decide what they would like at the sessions. Now, the girls, Jessica said, now make healthier choices when she asks them about what snacks to bring. 

Another lesson she learned was that “there’s a person behind the data”. Jessica explained that sometimes we get caught up in the statistics so much that we forget the people being helped and “the real meaning of helping others”. She said, “Sometimes we may not meet our intended goal, but we changed a person’s life.”

A photo of 2019 ASF Fellow Jessica McKenzie with some of her student participants at a Girls on the Run Birmingham session.
2019 ASF Fellow Jessica McKenzie (fourth from left) with some of her student participants at a Girls on the Run Birmingham session.