In 2013, The Center for Investigative Reporting looked into the issue of healthy school lunches by examining the eating habits of U.S. children and teenagers – and the intense pressures they face from the food and marketing industries.

But how could we get our findings to those most affected – the kids?

Hairnet Hero Lula photo

In CIR’s video game, “Hairnet Hero,” players help lunch lady Lula create a nutritious meal in her cafeteria.

So CIR launched its first video game, “Hairnet Hero.” The object of the game is to help lunch lady Lula create a nutritious meal in her cafeteria. To win, you have to come out of the lunch line with the healthiest option.

We also produced “Hairnet Hero” activity books to accompany the game, which you can play online or download at the iTunes App Store and Google Play store.

But we didn’t stop there. CIR engagement staff recently teamed up with Ari Dolid, an English teacher at the Social Justice Academy at San Leandro High School in California, to help high school students teach elementary school kids about the challenges and importance of healthy eating. Our goal was to work with the high school students to find new, innovative ways to engage younger kids on the issue.

Dolid split the class of sophomores into four groups, and each was responsible for developing an hourlong workshop, which they presented in elementary school classrooms in San Leandro in late May. These workshops were designed for kids in transitional kindergarten, first grade, fourth grade and fifth grade.

The sophomores had to think critically to develop and lead these workshops for kindergartners. How do you introduce a 5-year-old to the concepts of calories, fat and carbohydrates and make it relatable and fun? The group suggested dressing up as Lula and her little sodium and fat monsters from the game. They also suggested turning the popular song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams into “Healthy” with nutrition-related lyrics to grab their attention. (Both of which they did!)

The group presenting to fifth-graders, on the other hand, had very different challenges. How do you keep the attention of a 10-year-old? The sophomores suggested bringing in healthy snacks and vitamins but, after some group discussion, realized that might step into parental boundaries. They also brainstormed other incentives to get students to participate, such as giving away stickers or pencils.

Here’s what the groups came up with in their final presentations:

Group 1, fourth grade: The first group of sophomores turned the “Hairnet Hero” meal planner into a “real-life” game by providing a printout of a plate for each student, along with cutouts of drinks, veggies and main dishes. The fourth-graders then had to decide which items they would eat. They also got coloring books and worksheets to learn the definitions of words you might find on a nutritional label, such as “carbohydrate,” “calorie” and “protein.”

Hairnet Hero kindergarten photo

Students in transitional kindergarten are asked to pin a food item to the corresponding category on an extra-large food pyramid.Kelly Chen/CIR

Group 2, transitional kindergarten: Group 2 created an extra-large food pyramid and asked the young students to pin a food item to the corresponding category. The group also played a fun matching game using handmade cards of food items such as apples, pizza and juice to keep the kids engaged.

Hairnet Hero sophomores photo

The sophomores who developed the fifth-grade lesson came up with the Hairnet Hero Pledge, which kids sign with the promise to eat healthier.

 Julia B. Chan/CIR

Group 3, fifth grade: Group 3 started the workshop with a video of chef Jamie Oliver showing kids what many chicken nuggets actually contain. Oliver had thought that once kids knew the story behind “pink slime,” they’d make a conscious choice not to eat it. But, as the video shows, the demonstration backfired.

YouTube video

This group also came up with the Hairnet Hero Pledge, which kids would sign with the promise to eat healthier and encourage others, including their friends and family, to do so.

Hairnet Hero first-graders photo

First-graders snack on fresh fruit and use the “Hairnet Hero” activity books during their lesson on healthy eating.Julia B. Chan/CIR

Group 4, first grade: The final group’s presentation to a classroom of first-graders involved real fruit, which the younger children devoured. The group also used the “Hairnet Hero” activity books to identify and introduce each food group and explained the significance of each.

At the end of the day, both the high schoolers we worked with on engagement techniques and the elementary school kids who participated in the workshops learned a lot about healthy eating and the challenges of balancing their diet. Our goal at CIR is to engage and distribute the information directly to the people most affected by our reporting. And by working with kids of various ages in San Leandro, we were able to do just that.

For more on “Hairnet Hero” and our childhood nutrition investigation, visit

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