Healthy Eating Made Easy

The Poe Center in downtown Raleigh provides
hands-on learning in its CookWELL Kitchen. 

By Beth Peterson / Photography by Jennifer Bell

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The Alice Aycock Poe Center for Health Education welcomed its very first field trip group—some 70 students from Sampson Middle School—in November of 1991. Although their visit on that autumn day surely made an impression, the youngsters probably would never have guessed that they were the start of more than a million student visits. Their field trip kicked off the legacy of the Poe Center, as it is more commonly known today, which brings impactful health education services to the Triangle and surrounding communities. To date, more than 1.3 million participants have benefited from the Poe Center’s mission “to educate and empower North Carolina children, youth, and their families to make choices that increase positive health behaviors,” with the hope that they grow up to become healthy adults. 

Bounding off buses and bustling into the lobby, students visiting the Poe Center today will come face-to-face, as it were, with a 12-foot representation of a human head. Known as the “Cranium Connection,” this giant noggin houses the first of seven learning theaters that visitors encounter. Properly central to the facility, the Cranium Connection is a walk-in exhibit that features a 10-minute, 4-D educational program on brain health. 

But the brain is only one aspect of human health, and it is only one topic among the many addressed through the creative and interactive exhibits and teaching theaters found at the Poe Center. General health, bullying prevention, dental health, family life, and prevention of substance use are among the topics tackled during demonstrations, touchscreen presentations, 3-D models, and old-fashioned straight talk. 

Just outside the main building, the PlayWELL Park emphasizes physical activity, with zip lines stretched between models of ears, rib-cage ladders, and a maze intended to guide children to healthier lifestyle choices—all on over an acre of land. 

The GrowWELL Garden is another outdoor, theater-style classroom, which offers hands-on encounters with growing fruits and vegetables. Between the squash plants and strawberry vines, youngsters make the connection between the world they live in and the food they eat. Almost without realizing it, they simultaneously take in a little bit of science through the discussion and exploration of plant parts, photosynthesis, composting, and pollination.

There’s a lot to see and do at the Poe Center. But perhaps its most exciting feature is the recent addition of the CookWELL Kitchen. Clean, bright, and beautifully designed, the CookWELL Kitchen is a hands-on teaching space that has the look and feel of a kitchen you might find in any modern home. Here, children ages 8 and up learn basic cooking skills. Food preparation, recipe-following, cooking techniques, and kitchen safety—including knife skills and contamination prevention—are all implemented in a cheerful teaching theater. 

The CookWELL Kitchen offers a bit of a novelty, helping kids learn how to read a recipe to create a healthy dish, which is something many adults in our convenience-driven food culture rarely do. It also provides a perfect setting for food-related science experiments. Recently, a group of students participated in a “Muffin Mystery” class, learning how various ingredients affect a recipe. 

As much fun as it is to learn their way around the kitchen, visitors to CookWELL come away knowing that delicious and nutritious foods don’t have to be complicated. Establishing healthier eating habits can
be as simple as grabbing an apple or a handful of nuts over prepackaged options. “Unfortunately, marketing and convenience often draw people to unhealthy choices. By getting back to basics in the kitchen and in the garden, people get a healthier perspective on fresh foods,” says Rachel Pohlman, nutrition director for the Poe Center. She would love for everyone who visits the center to leave with an understanding that the healthy choice can also be “the easy choice.”

The Poe Center offers nutrition and physical activity programs at no cost to any school where 50 percent or more of the student population receives free or reduced lunches. During summer months, with the help of the Wake County Public Schools Summer Food Service Program, the Poe Center provides free lunches every Wednesday at the PlayWELL Park to any child aged 18 or under. The kids who attend receive a healthy lunch in a safe play space. “Lunch is in when school is out,” says Jennifer Bell, marketing director for the Poe Center, adding that as many as 50 to 90 children show up on Wednesdays to eat and play. Often, a dental van is parked outside, providing free dental services, while staff from the Poe Center and Marbles Kids Museum provide fun and engaging activities.

The Poe Center is located at 224 Sunnybrook Road in Raleigh, and is open for field trip groups. All of Poe’s educational resources are offered freely on the web at PoeHealth.org. 

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