By Mrs. Melody Everly (Drum)July 20, 2017
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Ask any Soldier who has ever spent a long day in the field, or any adult balancing work and the daily tasks necessary to keep a household running smoothly, and he or she can tell you the important role that healthy eating plays in providing the energy needed to perform at maximum potential.
Our bodies rely upon us to eat foods that supply the vital nutrients we need to maintain our health and energy. Proper nutrition is perhaps even more important for children, as their bodies build muscle and bone to support their physical activity and the brain cells that are necessary for optimal development and cognitive function.
The Army understands that strong military communities are built one person at a time, and leaders place emphasis on ensuring the total health of all members of the Army Family, said Courtney Lewis, Fort Drum Child and Youth Services nutritionist.
"The Army places a lot of emphasis on overall well-being -- physical and emotional wellness, proper nutrition, exercise and adequate sleep -- all of the things that they know are essential to a healthy lifestyle," she said. "They aren't just focused on taking care of Soldiers -- they know how important it is to help kids learn about healthy lifestyle choices from a very young age."
Lewis, a military spouse and registered dietician, is committed to ensuring that the youngest members of the Army Family have the knowledge they need to make smart choices that will impact their health for years to come.
Growing up in a close-knit community in rural New Hampshire, Lewis said that healthy eating was a way of life.
"We brought produce from local farm stands, and we had a community garden at my grade school," she said. "My mom has always been very health-conscious, and around my junior year of high school, I started to pay a lot more attention to healthy eating, nutrition and fitness."
Lewis played basketball and field hockey, and she said that she began to notice the way in which eating well helped her not only to feel good, but to perform her best athletically and academically. As she became more aware of the key role that nutrition plays in overall wellness, Lewis said that she knew she wanted to help educate others on the subject.
She attended the University of New Hampshire in the Nutrition and Dietetics program. While she was studying, Lewis learned about the Registered Dietician program -- an additional degree that requires candidates to complete an intensive clinical internship and pass a board examination.
Those interested in pursuing this degree had to apply for one of a limited number of slots available in the program, as well as an internship -- something that Lewis said is very selective. She said that she was fortunate to have had the opportunity to complete this practical placement at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island.
"The program was very intensive," she said. "I did clinical nutrition within a hospital setting for three months, focusing on medical nutrition therapy. I also did rotations in public health and food service, and I worked with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. I gained experience in a lot of different areas, and it has been very helpful to me in my job with CYS."
Through her internship experiences, Lewis said she developed a much greater awareness of just how much the body relies upon food to grow and function properly.
She accompanied her husband, 1st Lt. Isaac Lewis, as he completed school in Missouri. There, she worked in a WIC clinic. The couple arrived at Fort Drum in June 2016, and Lewis began working for CYS in September.
Lewis said that she enjoys being able to help children and parents, and she feels proud to have an opportunity to have a positive effect on the lives of others.
"I live on Fort Drum and I am part of the community that I work in," she said. "I love knowing that I am helping Army Families, but it's even more rewarding that I can take an active role in taking care of other members of my community."
As the subject-matter expert for Child and Youth Services, Lewis is responsible for training and supporting staff members in nutrition guidelines, proper food preparation and storage, sanitation and much more.
She also performs routine inspections at the facilities and advises CYS Employees regarding the Army's child nutrition standards.
"CYS facilities and Family Child Care homes follow the dietary guidelines outlined in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Child and Adult Care Food Program," she said. "Their menu guidelines include very specific criteria that ensure our kids are eating a well-balanced diet consisting of whole grains, lean protein and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables."
In addition to the knowledge Lewis has gained through her role as CYS nutritionist, she also has had an opportunity to see the impact of a quality nutrition program from the perspective of a parent. Her 1-year-old daughter attends one of the installation's child development centers, and Lewis said this has given her valuable perspective.
"Having a child in one the centers helps me to understand what parents are going through," she said. "Any time that a change in feeding happens -- whether it's transitioning from bottles to cups or learning to use utensils or try new foods -- it can be difficult for the children and for the parents. I can sympathize with that, because I've been there."
Lewis said that one of the biggest challenges that both parents and staff members in CYS facilities face is introducing children to new foods.
"A 1- or 2-year-old will usually try almost anything you put in front of them," she said. "As they get older, kids can be a little pickier. Research has shown that when children are introduced to a variety of new foods from a young age, they are more likely to make healthy food choices as adults."
Lewis said that while it can be hard to make time to sit down to a meal at the table, it is important to encourage children to be mindful as they eat their meals.
"Sometimes life gets busy, and kids don't always have a relaxed dinner at the table with their Families every night," she said. "Kids need to be taught to make healthy food choices, though, and the best way for them to learn is to see other people in their lives -- especially adults -- making healthy food choices."
This is why family-style dining, the model that is followed within CYS facilities and homes, is so important to developing good eating habits, Lewis said.
"At the centers, they eat their meals together at a large table with their classmates and teachers," she said. "It's interactive and facilitates conversation, and it also allows the teachers to model healthy eating practices and behaviors. They can discuss portion sizes, and the kids serve themselves and get to make choices as to which foods they would like more of -- it really empowers them to begin making their own food choices from a very young age."
Lewis said that while starting children off on the right path with nutrition is vital, it is important to continue to support and educate them as they grow.
"Your body's nutritional needs change over time -- especially during the teen years," she said.
Lewis said that teens are especially vulnerable to peer influence, and they sometimes feel pressure to try fad diets in order to achieve a body type that they feel is desirable.
"Technology and social media are such a big part of their lives at this age," she said. "You can find so many conflicting things about nutrition and fad diets online. It's important to me to give them scientific, evidence-based information about nutrition so they can make the best possible choices."
Recognizing the need to provide guidance to teens at this pivotal point in their development, Lewis created lessons geared toward students who attend the Youth Center.
"I taught a class to the boys focused on fitness and nutrition," she said. "A lot of them are playing sports and I taught them about general nutrition, but I also focused on what they should consume before and after physical activity to feel their best."
"With the 'Smart Girls' class, I spoke about body image and different nutrients that are good for healthy hair and skin," she said.
Lewis said that she strives to provide information that is relevant to the children and to convey it in a manner that will capture their attention.
"I designed a 'Nutrition Jeopardy' game that I use in the centers, and the kids really enjoy it," she said. "I think anytime you can make learning fun, that knowledge is going to stick with the kids a lot better."
Lewis said that her goal is to start children off on the right path where nutrition is concerned, so that they will continue to make smart choices for the rest of their lives.
"I want to educate as many people as possible -- whether it's the kids or the parents of the youths who are enrolled in CYS programs," she said. "I want them to think about the food choices they are making, and I want them to enjoy what they are eating and the way that it makes them feel."
"Taking care of yourself at a young age can make a huge impact on your health later in life, and I want to do anything I can to make sure that members of the community have the tools they need to be happy and healthy in the future."