Youngsters in “Media Smart Youth” check out healthy food options while grocery shopping with their families.Photo c/o Sofia Porter-Castro

This winter, youngsters in the Youth Organizations Umbrella program at Oakton Elementary School participated in a 10-week program called “Media Smart Youth,” led by Evanston Township High School juniors Miara Handler and Loie Gilbert.

Miara and Loie said they are interested in health and nutrition, so when they heard that the grants were available from the National Institutes of Health, they applied and received one of only 50 awarded nationwide.

NIH supplied the curriculum, which focused on the role of media in healthy/unhealthy eating and physical activity. There were blind taste tests of fruits and vegetables, scavenger hunts through grocery stores, and collage projects inspired by food advertisements, each designed to help youth learn about nutrition and the environmental factors that influence mental and physical health. 

“Everything we did we tied back to media – how the media affect our choices and how we can use the media,” said Miara.

Loie and Miara met on Sundays to organize their Tuesday-Thursday hourlong, after-school classes to keep the students interested. The two said they were surprised by how much these 10- and 11-year-olds already knew about the media.

“A major challenge was that some of the kids were distracted and didn’t want to do some of the programs,” said Loie. “[But] when you think they weren’t paying attention, they really were.”

“We tried to keep them engaged, but some of the topics – like learning about whole grains – were dense,” added Miara. Attendance was very good. “All 10 students stayed for the whole course, and we had at least eight kids per session,” she said.

The final project for the group, which NIH left to each awardee to design, was the “big production.” Miara and Loie made a video montage of the Media Smart Youth and are in the process of editing it.

They spent some of the $1,000 grant on T-shirts for the students, for the video and some on the healthy snacks for each session. They donated the remainder to Y.O.U.

Keeping up with the heavy academic load of AP classes was another challenge for Loie and Miara, but both said they would do it again. “It was a really great experience, teaching,” said Miara. “I felt really connected to the students,” said Loie. “What they learn about health now will influence them positively for the rest of their lives, and they’re having a lot of fun.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...