When volunteering becomes a PhD opportunity: a collaboration with OzHarvest   

This blog has been contributed by PhD candidate Fay Karpouzis, who is undertaking her PhD, at Deakin University, in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences and is part of the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition. She is also the recipient of an NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship. Fay’s passion is to make a difference in the arena of Public Health. She believes that the future of population health lies in the prevention of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and that requires education and behaviour change support in early life. 

Image source OzHarvest FEAST program – credit Vanessa Rowe

Who knew when I volunteered at OzHarvest that my inspiration for a PhD would be born. In late 2017, I registered online for a volunteer position with OzHarvest. What I thought I was volunteering for, and what I ended up doing, were two entirely different things. I thought I was going to help cook for the homeless. What I ended up doing was becoming OzHarvest’s School and Community Ambassador (2018-2019). It was in that role, that I came across FEAST: the Food Education and Sustainability Training program.  

This program was designed by a team of dedicated employees at OzHarvest with backgrounds in education, nutrition, and sustainability. Together, with inputs from the education sector (including primary school teachers interviewed in focus groups to provide feedback on the FEAST pilot program) they created a primary-school, classroom-based, curriculum-aligned program, for students in Years 5 and 6. In a nutshell, the FEAST program, was designed to provide teachers with a program that educates children about food waste, sustainability, and nutrition, using hands-on cooking activities.

In my capacity as OzHarvest’s School and Community Ambassador, I analysed and gave feedback on the FEAST program. In my review, I saw a program that deserved greater documentation and scientific validation. So, I sought and gained permission from OzHarvest’s founder and CEO, Ronni Kahn AO, to collaborate with OzHarvest to evaluate the FEAST program as part of my PhD. Within the last two months, we have been working together, and have successfully recruited 20 schools to participate in this evaluation. The first publication of my PhD provides the protocol outlining how we are collaborating with OzHarvest to evaluate the program.

This collaboration gives both the OzHarvest FEAST team and our research team the opportunity to combine our strengths. The FEAST team are providing training, resources, and support to schools, so that teachers can implement FEAST in the classroom setting. And we, the research team, are bringing scientific rigour to provide an independent evaluation of the FEAST program.  

The next phase of my PhD will involve a parallel, cluster, non-randomized controlled trial (NRCT) with pre- and post-measures to evaluate FEAST in the real world, under normal conditions. It will be evaluated among the 20 primary schools recruited within NSW. Ten schools will be in the intervention group, and ten will be in the wait-list control group.  

Teachers have been trained by the OzHarvest FEAST team via face-to-face or in online training sessions (depending on distance from the OzHarvest offices and COVID19 restrictions). The teachers will be responsible for delivering the FEAST program as a 1.5-h lesson/week, for a 10-week unit of inquiry, incorporating both theory and cooking sessions. The school community, including parents/caregivers, school staff, school P&C members etc., will be invited by the classroom teachers to help students cook during the six practical FEAST cooking sessions.

Pre- and post-intervention surveys will be issued in the first and last weeks of Term 3, respectively. Both intervention and wait-list control schools will complete the FEAST student surveys at the same time. The primary outcomes that we are interested in assessing are children’s self-reported fruit and vegetable intakes (serves/day). In addition, we are also interested in food literacy constructs such as: nutrition knowledge, food preparation and cooking skills, self-efficacy and behaviours, food waste knowledge and behaviours and food production knowledge. These will be assessed as secondary outcomes.

As we know, the promotion of healthy eating is a public health priority. Poor dietary behaviours, including low fruit and vegetable consumption are of particular concern among children. Novel nutrition promotion strategies are needed to improve fruit and vegetable consumption. Sustainability education could be used to support nutrition education within the school context.

The results from this study have the capacity to provide valuable information on the benefit of adding environmental sustainability strategies to nutrition education in schools. If successful, FEAST will have the potential to benefit students by providing them with a set of tools to help them achieve healthy and sustainable eating practices. If successful, FEAST also has the potential to support the Australian Curriculum with health promoting and sustainability messages, which could contribute to: health promotion within schools, sustainable school initiatives; government-supported public health initiatives; the national agenda to reduce food waste; as well as the sustainable development goal targets for 2030.  

As someone who has been passionate about children’s health and well-being for a long time, I now have a new avenue for promoting healthy lifestyles to children! 



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