Brittney Damerow is the Director of Dining Services at the Michigan School for the Deaf (MSD), in Flint, Mich., which serves students as young as 30 months old through young adults in their mid-20s. Students hail from counties and school districts across Michigan. Because many of the students’ families live in a different part of the state—some up to four hours way—MSD offers a residence hall where approximately one-third of the student body lives during the school week. Damerow says that for those students who live at MSD all week, “a lot of them grew up here; this is home for a lot of students.” These students, who are deaf, hard of hearing (HH), or visually impaired receive overwhelming support in their academics, and the living and learning environments are designed to be as inclusive as possible. Highly skilled teachers lead dual-language classes and programs in both American Sign Language (ASL) and English.

When it comes to nutrition and eating habits, Damerow and the staff face some unique challenges at MSD, partially due to the broad age range of students. “You can’t feed a 2.5-year-old and a 26-year-old the same thing,” says Damerow. She also shares that the students often lack exposure to the practical side of nutritional education, like the responsibility of choosing their own food and preparing meals.

“They don’t have as much opportunity to learn or to be involved with their food,” says Damerow. “It’s just presented to them. They get in line, make a choice, and go to class. I would love to see more interaction and help them realize where food comes from.”

She wants this level of interaction to change so that the students can develop healthy eating habits, make choices independently, and feel confident making sense of nutritional information when meal planning, shopping, and preparing food for themselves in the future. She knows the home environment MSD offers means that the students are learning so much beyond their time spent in the classroom. “We’re unique in that kids learn so much of their lifestyle here,” says Damerow.

As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Damerow learned about the Apples4Ed grant through a dietician colleague at Chartwells Schools Dining Services. She and the community were thrilled to discover they had been awarded the Apples4Ed grant, and she was delighted when the Michigan Department of Education reached out to congratulate her school. “Personally, I was very surprised. I did not expect this amazing reward. When the Department of Ed reached out to congratulate us, [it felt] very encouraging.”

For the Apples4Ed grant application, Damerow took inspiration from the way some university and college athletic departments are creating snack and smoothie stations for athletes before and after their practices or workouts. She plans to create an attractive space reminiscent of a retail environment that is fully stocked with fruit baskets, a refrigerator with a clear door showcasing fresh produce, and a counter with snack drawers. She envisions this space as an open social area in the residence halls where students can come together, eat fresh and healthy snacks, and catch up with one another. Damerow believes this will create an educational opportunity for students where they can develop the eating habits that will serve them in the long-term and model healthy peer-to-peer behavior. This modeling is especially important with so many younger students looking up to older members of the student community.

Reflecting on her own experience growing up in a family that is deeply involved in the food and agriculture industries, Damerow shares that opportunities to practice cooking for themselves and understanding the consequences of nutrition are challenges for these students. Many are not involved in preparing the food they eat and do not have as much time making food at home with their families. “I always had a support system, in terms of being in the food system, but after going off to college, being on your own—food is not something you want to think about, but it is [important]. With this, I’m hoping it will invite them to be more interactive with their choices and nutrition and have more of say in what they want.”

Damerow plans to kick off the fueling station project this summer so that her students can enjoy the new space later this fall. She hopes to make it the next go-to area where students prefer spending free time together while gently encouraging healthy behavior and independence. “I want it to be an inviting hang-out spot where they can enjoy themselves.”

Damerow hopes that students will learn how to moderate their nutritional choices, understand that food is fuel, and become empowered to maintain healthy eating habits. She hopes to impact each MSD student but also knows the satisfaction of making a difference in the life of just one. “[It is] something they’ll hopefully benefit from years to come. The knowledge they get from this could be irreplaceable—even if it’s just for one student,” she shares.

The students at Michigan School for the Deaf move on to different educational pathways after their secondary education, with some of them going on to earn college degrees. Graduates of Michigan School for the Deaf have gone onto institutions such as Johnson Wales University and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Some seniors have shared their career goals and aspirations of joining the automotive industry, engineering, getting certified in computer hardware, becoming a historian, welding, and even studying culinary arts. As many of the residents will make transitions out of the school and away from the home they have known at MSD upon graduation, Damerow is using the Apples4Ed grant as a way to pass on practical knowledge for healthy lifestyles after their time at MSD, and into adulthood.