By Alyssa Schoeneman
With TV shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma at the forefront of popular media, America is being bombarded with information about nutrition and mass food production – and with good reason. The obesity epidemic has consistently spread in the U.S. over the past few decades, and it is up to us as a nation to step up and fight against it. Enter Parkland College Professor of Nutrition Toni Burkhalter.
Burkhalter, with help from the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership, has developed curriculum that yields nutritionally sound new lunch options for local elementary schools; in an earlier version of Burkhalter’s course, the students developed their own food products and had the opportunity to create a market-ready product in 4 short months.
“The business redesign was something I’d always wanted to do – to get something to market was a dream that was self-motivated… I was living vicariously through my students’ projects,” Burkhalter said. “My second inspiration was my kids – I am a working mother and I am sending my kids to school with bagged lunches because don’t trust the schools’ options; I wanted to be able to send my kids to school and feel good about letting them buy a lunch.”
The first semester of Burkhalter’s course had a business focus – Burkhalter wanted her students, who began with a very small concept of nutrition and product marketing, to know how to develop and market a sustainable project after 16 weeks in class.
“My students went from start to finish in producing a complete package that was ready for market,” she said. “They created a product that met a need in society.”
Burkhalter adapted the course, The Fundamentals of Nutrition, to have more of a social entrepreneurship focus in its second iteration.
“I saw the other Academy faculty fellows making such big sweeping changes in their fields and I wanted to have that for my students,” she said.
Burkhalter redesigned the course within the same budget and then bought food supplies so her students could create a healthier lunch alternative for an elementary school. The students then went into the schools to perform a survey and to speak with students, an opportunity that allowed them to get to know their target audience and to truly assess the nutritional needs that existed in the elementary school environment.
Burkhalter found that that experience deepened her students’ involvement with the project and that it affected their learning in a positive way.
“[My students] really wanted to impact the kids’ lives,” she said. “They were really being empathetic and thinking about changes outside of themselves.”
Burkhalter considers her course redesign to be the most entrepreneurial thing that she has ever done.
“I legitimately wanted to change the school lunch offering here in Champaign…I wanted it to ripple into other communities,” she said, “and the Academy made it possible by providing me the encouragement, support and funds to make a change like that.”
But the class does not benefit the community alone; Burkhalter believes that her students show significant growth in their ability to work as a cohesive team during their time in her course.
“In some of my other classes the students have been overly concerned about their grade or their project,” she said. “In this class, the students are working together and trying to succeed as a team… they are supporting one another’s weight and keeping their commitments to their teammates.”
Having those skills, Burkhalter continued, will carry her students far into their careers; her students will know how to adapt, communicate and compromise when faced with a group projects in the future.
Her strategy appears to be working so far.
“[The students I have had in Fundamentals of Nutrition] send me cards and letters telling me how much they have grown as people from being in the course,” Burkhalter said. “They’ve learned how to work with others, but more importantly, they have become passionate about their schoolwork and about nutrition.”
Such great feedback, Burkhalter continued, inspires her to want to teach more of her courses in an entrepreneurial way.
“Before I was a faculty fellow,” she said, “I thought of entrepreneurship as being business related… I didn’t know about the social element. The Academy has allowed me to see that I can inspire students in multiple ways through entrepreneurship, and I plan to continue doing so for a long time.”
Burkhalter will keep the school lunch aspect of her course intact during its next semester, but she is considering adding a focus on concession stand fare as well.
So if you see a black bean burger or a low-cal smoothie at the next Illinois football game you’ll know who to blame…or, hopefully, who to thank.
Entrepreneurial course taught by Professor Burkhalter
BIO120, The Fundamentals of Nutrition
Students examine food sources and functions of nutrients, nutrition standards and
guidelines, principles of weight management, and relationship between nutrition and health. The course stresses practical
application of nutrition concepts and explores current nutrition controversies.
The course teaches nutrition through engaging the students in the development of a novel
snack food aimed to meet the needs of an active woman. Students will work in teams to: research the motivation behind
snack food choices, examine nutrient profiles of ingredients, formulate a recipe for a snack bar, interpret lab analysis of the
product, and aid in the local marketing of the foodstuff.
Visit Parkland College's course catalog website for course availability
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About Professor Burkhalter
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