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Healthy? That's fa sheezy!*

PhD candidate Caree Jackson takes her song and dance about
good nutrition to a south Atlanta public school

*for sure


by Kate Carter



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Discipline is being doled out in the front office of L.J. Price Middle School and Caree Jackson recognizes two of her students as she enters.

“Why are you here?” she asks a glum-faced boy perched on a chair.

“And why are you here?” she asks another student. “How long have you been here?”

It’s 3:15 on a hot March afternoon at this Atlanta public school, four miles southeast of downtown. Jackson is a familiar figure, running an after-school program that uses acting, song and dance to teach students about health and nutrition. And, she hopes, helps them make wiser decisions and stay out of trouble.

There’s clearly more work to be done.

“If I let it bum me out, I’d be bummed out all the time,” Jackson says before heading to the cafeteria where her students are gathering. “I just want them to do better.”

A Ph.D. candidate in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS), Jackson communicates with students on their terms, and it works. Two days a week for ten weeks of the spring semester, she meets with 15 students, serving them sumptuous and healthy snacks of non-fat black bean burritos, low-fat pita pizza, turkey roll-ups, strawberries, grapes, fresh vegetables and smoothies.

“Students that wouldn’t even eat grapes were trying things like yogurt and spinach,” says Jackson, who received funding for the middle school program from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation. “They understood that there is a relationship between the foods we eat and the diseases we develop.”

Throughout the semester, Jackson and her students practice a play they will perform—with maximum enthusiasm—at the year-end Parent Teacher Association meeting. “Healthy 4 Life” is not a boring rendition of a Shakespeare play or a Broadway musical. Utterly original, it includes a skit, poems, a step routine, a hip-hop dance and a health rap.

A product of the Atlanta Public Schools, where her mother served as a principal, Jackson graduated from Howard University with a degree in biology. She had planned to go to medical school, but an intensive pre-medical program at the Medical College of Georgia showed her she “wasn’t in love with” the medical profession. After spending hours in the hospital with her father, who was dying of cancer, she realized that was not where she wanted to spend her career.

"I decided I wanted to see people before they got too sick,” Jackson says. “So if I could do prevention, that would be my thing.”

She began her graduate coursework at UGA in 2002, and since then has tapped her creative and intellectual prowess to transform the lives of students, many of them from low-income families.

On that steamy afternoon in March, students line up in front of the 30-year-old Jackson, who, with her hip jeans and hair pulled back, looks like a cool big sister. The words to the rap roll off their tongues and the students deftly follow Jackson’s dance moves.

To prepare the students for their big performance, Jackson takes them to the Alliance Theatre to see “Cuttin’ Up,” a play about African-American barbershops. The production fuels her students’ dramatic leanings, and by the day of their performance, they are ready to wow the audience, a group of about 50 family members, teachers and administrators.

Eighth grader Rashunda Weaver, who brings the house down with her role as a gray-haired lady sporting a pillow-stuffed bottom, describes Jackson as somebody who makes people comfortable with themselves.

I’ve been trying to lose weight,” Weaver says. “Every time we come here she gives us healthy food like bananas and juice. I’m just happy with myself, because if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have any confidence.”

Rebecca Mullis, who runs the nutrition intervention laboratory at UGA, oversees students like Jackson who put their research to work in the community.

“What Caree sees is not the students’ plight, but the opportunities that she can provide for these kids, in terms of health and quality of life,” says Mullis, who also is head of Food and Nutrition at FACS.

Many of the kids need extra help. More than 90 percent of Price Middle School students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, says Razikiwe Adisa, senior program coordinator for the Communities In Schools of Atlanta program at Price. For many students, transportation is limited, and their families tend to shop at corner grocery stores that stock processed junk food in lieu of fresh fruits and vegetables, Adisa says.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of children who are overweight has doubled in the last two to three decades. Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes have risen precipitously. And nearly half of all children 8-16 years old watch at least three hours of television every day.

Thanks to Jackson, conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure are part of the weekly after-school dialogue at Price Middle School, and the students are spreading the gospel at home.

“I’ve started to eat baked food instead of fast food,” sixth-grader Shederrion Lewis says. “My daddy’s tried to do healthy stuff. My grandma’s making smoothies.”

Adisa praises Jackson for captivating students’ infamously wandering attention.

"It’s the pillar of the hip-hop piece and the spoken word stuff. That’s what gets their attention—not as much the main course, you know?” Adisa says. “You have to meet them where their interests lie and you attach the associated, real message to it.”

At that, Jackson is a pro.

While interning for a company called Food Play Productions, Jackson finished writing a play and program called “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Thru ’Da Hood.” Registered dietician and playwright Barbara Storper owns Food Play Productions and got Jackson’s permission to use the program in Philadelphia elementary schools. Now Jackson’s company, R.Y.T.H.I.M. (Reaching You Through Healthy Innovative Methods), is paid royalties for performances of the show, and she plans to expand the company to include more programs through which she can help families adopt healthy lifestyles.

“I just teach individuals how to make choices given the barriers they face,” Jackson says.

An hour before the May performance, Jackson spins her philosophy into reality. She stands in the middle of the auditorium offering tips on everything from tone of voice to dance moves to theatrical gestures.

“If it’s a part of the dance you don’t know, I don’t care. Just move!” she says. The students start over, with more energy.

“Good,” Jackson says, a smile spreading across her face. “Good.”

Want more?

To learn more about the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, go to www.fcs.uga.edu


Kate Carter is a freelance writer in Atlanta.

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PHOTO GALLERY

photos by
Dot Paul


Click on image to enlarge

Rashunda Weaver gets into the act wearing a gray wig and a pillow stuffed under her dress.

Caree Jackson, a Ph.D. candidate in family and consumer sciences, leads an after school program for Atlanta middle school students on fitness and health.

Shederrion Lewis, a 6th grader at Luther J. Price Middle School, sings the Hip Hop Health Rap during the Healthy 4 Life end- of-program performance.

Ph.D. student Caree Jackson poses with some of her Healthy 4 Life students after their end-of-the-year performance. Top, left to right, Jackson, Rashunda Weaver; second row, Jasmine Ellis, Aaron Ellis, Shederrion Lewis, Chanterria Palmer, Nicole Palmer; third row, Diamond Palmer, Jessica Talbert; bottom row, Raven Ellis, Alexus Palmer.