Nearly 50 local high schoolers from low-income families are discovering the many opportunities higher education can offer them – and they’re learning why it’s important to choose fruit and salad over pizza and fries.

The inaugural class of UCF’s Upward Bound program began its third year with a six-week stay on campus. Students are participating in academic courses, career events and life skills workshops. They’re living in residence halls and learning to eat healthy foods that might not be readily available at home.

Upward Bound guides high school students in which neither parent holds a college degree through the college admissions process and provides students with the tools they’ll need to succeed in college.

The four-year program’s ultimate goal is to increase college enrollment, and organizers hope the summer food and wellness programs — along with the academic and career preparations — will enhance students’ decision-making skills and their desires for healthy futures.

“Upward Bound is opening so many doors for us,” said Jon Rodriguez, a student at University High School. “It’s helping us realize that we’re just a couple of steps away from college.”

With a grant from the state Department of Education’s Summer Food Service Program, UCF has been offering nutritious meals to its Upward Bound participants eating in on-campus cafeterias. Historically, the state program ensures that children from low-income areas continue to receive healthy meals at school cafeterias even when they’re on summer break.

“Our summer food program helps students think about what they’re eating and make healthier choices,” said Upward Bound Director Rebekah McCloud. “Hosting the students on campus and serving them meals means we can teach them a lot about food and good nutrition habits.”

At UCF, Upward Bound students eat three meals each day in UCF’s Marketplace dining hall and munch on health snacks in between meals. A “food monitor” ensures that students are receiving the proper servings of milk, fruit, vegetables, grains and protein. The monitor supervises meals, even during off-campus field trips and college tours.

The state program reimburses UCF between $1 and $3 per meal, and that funding helps to pay for other activities. Last summer, the students and staff took a three-night trip to Atlanta, where they toured area colleges and visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

A wellness program designed by UCF graduate student Carla McKnight accompanies the dining plan. This program encourages students to make long-term commitments to changing the ways they eat and exercise. It includes classes on how to read nutrition facts, select meals according to the food pyramid and calculate body mass index.

Students also participate in exercise activities such as relay races, dance classes and other sports.

“When we first came to UCF, we were overwhelmed by all of the food options,” said Erika Ramirez of University High School. “We’ve learned about good eating habits and calorie counts, and now we don’t eat as much.”

To learn more about Upward Bound visit