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ALBUQUERQUE – Helping people learn to practice better health behaviors is the goal of nutrition educators.

New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service provides such teaching through the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition program in 21 counties in New Mexico.

nmsu donna gomez nutrition educator 051519Donna Gomez, nutrition educator with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition program, uses sign language to communicate with students at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)In their efforts to inspire New Mexico’s limited resource youth and adults to make healthy food and lifestyle choices, the nutrition educators communicate in English and Spanish depending on the audience’s needs.

For nutrition educator Donna Gomez, her ability to communicate in American Sign Language allows her to present the ICAN program to an audience that has previously not been served – deaf students. 

“We want to hire nutrition educators who are multi-lingual in order to better serve our target population,” said Donna Sauter, director of the ICAN program. “Donna’s sign language skills opened new opportunities for our program.”

Gomez developed her sign language skills over the past 20 years as the wife of a deaf man.

“While taking a sign language class in college, my husband George noticed me and came up to talk to me,” Gomez said. “Although I was just starting to sign, and was a little slow at it, we started dating. It was great to be able to communicate with him without having an interpreter. Eventually we got married and I continued to sign and interpret.”

As one of a few ICAN nutrition educators in the nation able to use sign language while working with this special audience, Gomez has taken the program into the classrooms of the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy.

“We are thrilled that our health teacher, Rosamaria Sandoval, and Donna Gomez are working together to expand our health education program,” said Raphael Martinez, executive director of the 100-student charter school. “We want to bring the world to our students. The problem is the signing component. So when we find experienced experts that do sign language, that’s a blessing.”

Being able to work with the students at the academy has allowed NMSU’s ICAN program to bring important education to a segment of its target audience that has not been served up to this point. 

nmsu donna gomez nutrition educator 051519 2Albuquerque Sign Language Academy students Angel Ornelas, left, and Makayla Chavez-Gurule, right, receive instruction from Donna Gomez, nutrition educator with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition program, through sign language, while receiving assistance from school aide Violette Bennet, middle. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)One of ICAN’s guiding principles is providing evidence-based nutrition education while teaching practical skills such as cooking, food resource management and food safety.

While speaking and signing, Gomez teaches the first- through eighth-grade students about the five food groups – fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains and lean protean – that a healthy meal should contain. 

The students also learned how to read the nutritional information on food packaging so they can make wise decisions regarding the food they are eating.

Exploring the taste and texture of different fruits and vegetables using taste tests has allowed the students to discover new favorite snacks. The students were introduced to purple carrots and kiwi fruit recently. 

“The students really enjoy the program,” Sandoval said. “Donna really engages the students in interesting discussions. We reinforce the information she presents by revisiting the topic to each class.”

One discussion on eating disorders evolved into an assignment for the middle school students to conduct further research about these disorders.

“We are very pleased with this partnership with NMSU’s Bernalillo County ICAN Program, and in the future we want to expand into other Extension areas, such as 4-H, outdoor education and gardening,” Martinez said. “All of the things that Extension does, our kids have an interest in, and we feel this partnership will broaden their education.”

The Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition program is available in Bernalillo, Chaves, Cibola, Curry, Dona Ana, Grant, Hidalgo, Lea, Lincoln, Luna, McKinley, Otero, Rio Arriba, Roosevelt, San Juan, Sandoval, Santa Fe, Sierra, Socorro, Torrance and Valencia counties. For information about the program, contact the county Extension office.

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