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Clemson’s life skills program gets culinary upgrade

Students with intellectual disabilities learn how to shop, cook and navigate the dining halls as they make the journey toward living independently.

The ClemsonLIFE program at Clemson University is designed for students with intellectual disabilities who can benefit from learning to live on their own in a supportive campus setting. Through a basic two-year program, students learn to safely live independently, manage their own budget, find and sustain employment and make friends along the way. Students who successfully complete the first two years can progress into the advanced program, which puts more emphasis on workplace experience and independent living with less support.

The students live in four-bedroom apartments on campus with an onsite living assistant who’s there all the time, so every part of this program is a learning experience. Skills like recognizing healthy relationships, socializing and hygiene practices are also part of the program. 

“My absolute favorite part of this program is when I see students choosing healthy options in the dining hall.”
— Shannon Thompson, RD, LD

Even with so many life skills being addressed, somehow food and nutrition were getting lost in the shuffle.

“Students are navigating a new world—campus, dining halls, roommates and classes—and it can be easy to fall short on eating a healthy and balanced diet,” says Shannon Thompson, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with Aramark and nutrition manager at Clemson.

Developing healthy eating habits as young adults on campus “means they are more likely to do this the rest of their lives,” Thompson says. “The rates of obesity in adults in America are steadily rising and that’s especially true among adults with intellectual disabilities.”

What Thompson noticed with many LIFE students was problems that every consumer deals with: confusing—and often conflicting—nutritional advice online, buying healthy ingredients at the store with good intentions but no idea what to do with them once they’re in the fridge and eating in moderation, especially sweets.

“I also think they run into problems in the dining hall with desserts,” Thompson says. “Some students have a difficult time choosing only one cookie.

The students needed guidance on more: skills ranging from grocery shopping to meal planning to cooking to portion control and making smart choices when dining out. Thompson, Executive Chef J. Craig Fincher and the rest of the Aramark foodservice team got to work bringing those missing puzzle pieces together for the LIFE students, starting in January of this year.

Thompson has strived to make the class, which is held in Clemson’s largest residential dining hall, as hands-on and fun as possible.

“The students love when food samples are involved in a lesson,” she says. “In our last lesson we had a pizza party, but each student was required to put at least three different veggies on their pizza.”

Practical, everyday lessons win out over counting calories or grams of sugar.

“I like to ask myself if they are going to read a nutrition label or look at grams of sugar in a soda. Probably not. But they will take note if I say to choose flavored sparkling water over soda or how to choose a healthier option at Starbucks.”

Thompson uses MyPlate as a learning tool, calling it “an easy visual to see all of the five food groups.” Other skills include making healthy swaps, portion sizes, planting a kitchen herb garden, proper hand washing and food safety.

The class reviews MyPlate’s visual representation of a balanced plate every week in class, and each student names the five food groups. Steady reviewing/repetition has been working well in terms of teaching style, Thompson has found. So far, the program has been well-received, and students have the opportunity for a one-on-one consultation with Thompson and are free to email questions about their personal diet questions.

While at the beginning of the semester, LIFE students were seen choosing mainly pizza, burgers and fries at the dining hall (and those items are still popular); they’re now choosing a lot more broccoli, salads, grapes, melon and other healthier options.

“They see me in the dining hall and love to show me the fruits and vegetables on their plates,” Thompson says. For next semester, an even bigger focus will be on tools for navigating the retail dining options on campus.

“We’ll be adding a dining hall tour, showing the students how to use all of the tools of the dining hall and where to find the healthiest options,” Thompson says. “We will also be teaching them how to make easy meals at home, sending them to the grocery store with a list of ingredients to keep in their apartments.”

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