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Teaching Healthy Eating

Connecting Communities to Healthier Lifestyles

By Dave Ramont

When it comes to eating healthier, there are many diets out there that claim to be the most effective, including the South Beach Diet, Paleo Diet, Mediterranean Diet, Volumetrics and the Raw Food Diet. And while devotees and nutrition experts can debate which ones are truly best until the cows come home, there's one thing that most everyone agrees on: Fresh fruits and vegetables are key to any healthy diet. Unfortunately, many people don't have access to fresh foods, particularly fresh produce, especially in underserved communities. But some communities, schools, park districts and nonprofits are aiming to combat this deficiency and educate kids and parents about nutrition and healthier lifestyles.

Overserving the Underserved

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past 30 years, affecting one in six children, with one in three being overweight. This poses greater risks for diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and other health problems including mental health issues. The Healthy Weight Partnership is a UK-based organization that develops and implements evidence-based weight management programs internationally. They work with public, private, nonprofit and academic organizations to reach some of the neediest families and communities. In 2015, they teamed up with the YMCA of the USA to offer their MEND program (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition…Do It!) at Ys across America.

YMCA solicited input from childhood obesity experts to identify a proven program that they could implement effectively, and MEND has shown statistically significant reductions in body mass index (BMI), sedentary activities and improvements in physical activity. Aimed at kids aged 7 to 13, the program provides a fun and active way to explore proven methods for healthier living. And now, Matt Longjohn, M.D., and National Health Officer at the YMCA, tells us they're testing their version of Mend—"Healthy Weight and Your Child"—in 19 American cities.

The group-based program combines three elements: healthy eating, regular physical activity and behavior change. He said early results are promising, with more than half of the first year's participants coming from low-income households and qualifying for free or reduced lunches. "As with other evidence-based programs we're scaling, we intend to overserve the underserved to reduce risks for chronic disease and to shrink health inequities seen across the country."

The YMCA offers many other programs to educate members on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, including Cooking Matters at the Store, Nutrition Detectives, the Healthy Family Home initiative, and the Healthy Me program aimed at preschoolers. But many Ys are also working to get produce directly into neighborhood "food deserts," a term used to describe an urban area at least one mile from the nearest grocery store, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Some of these efforts include: placing gardens in communities on land that is unused and often an eyesore; mobile farmers markets; partnerships with food banks that provide produce for program participants; summer meals programs in day camps; gardens within YMCAs and farmers markets in YMCA lobbies; seminars on gardening and how to use the produce. These neighborhoods often have corner stores, but few have fresh produce, and if they do, it's very expensive—an apple or banana costing more than chips and soda.

Twice a month in Tampa, Fla., the YMCA Veggie Van brings fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved communities for one dollar a bag. The YMCA of Western North Carolina delivers fresh produce and healthy meals using two food trucks in communities with limited access to food. The Y staff there discovered that involving kids in the preparation helped get them to try different, nutritious foods. The Trenton, N.J., YMCA joined the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids to launch a local farmers market. Not only can community members access fresh produce, but there are health screenings, music, games and physical activities for children and adults. Plus, the Y offers free, nutritious meals to all children 18 and under at the location.

Providing Produce

Farmers markets have long been an institution, but in recent years they've really grown in popularity, with an estimated 8,500 markets across the United States. And that's good for everyone: Farmers earn fair prices selling directly to consumers, consumers have access to fresh produce, and communities benefit from the foot traffic. Most states have their own market networks and associations, and there are national groups as well, like the nonprofit Farmers Market Coalition, which works to equip market managers and farmers with the tools necessary to run successful markets. They also realize that inequities exist, and advocate for everyone to have access to fresh food.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as food stamps) works to provide low-income families with additional food assistance. SNAP benefits can be used at most grocery or convenience stores, but unfortunately the benefits are often used on unhealthy processed foods because they're cheaper and easier to access than fresh foods. To address this issue, groups across the country are pushing for more incentives for low-income families to buy fresh produce, leading to the development of programs like SNAP at Market, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits to buy farm fresh foods.

Chelsea Roseberry is the Farmers Market coordinator for the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia, and said that they offer SNAP at Market programs at four of their 11 market locations—the ones deemed to be the most in need.

"We match SNAP purchases at market up to $20 to be used on additional fruits and vegetables, thanks to generous donations from Inova (a nonprofit health organization) and funding from the USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant."

Roseberry added that the Virginia Farmers Market Association is working to expand SNAP access to other Virginia farmers markets. "Incentive programs could provide a big boost to struggling markets, and at our four markets alone brought in an additional $20,000 in income for 2016. These programs are growing rapidly nationwide and have demonstrated much success in providing healthy fresh produce to low-income families, while providing additional income to small farmers."

Roseberry also explained how they partner with the Virginia Cooperative Extension to provide healthy cooking demonstrations at SNAP markets, to teach patrons to use fresh ingredients or try new produce items they haven't before. "This is especially true for SNAP shoppers who may not be accustomed to using fresh ingredients, or may not be used to using produce native to this region."

They show customers how to use the produce, hand out recipes and offer tips on how to save at the market. All recipes feed a family of four for less than $5. Roseberry said it's their initiative to knock down barriers to SNAP recipients shopping at the markets, since "food literacy" is a key obstacle, along with transportation and cost. "The demonstrations have been well-received by market shoppers. I often see customers picking up the recipe card and purchasing all the ingredients to go home and make the recipe," she said.

Roseberry also sits on the Fairfax Food Council (FFC), which was born from a need to address health issues plaguing low-income communities. They have three separate groups working on issues including food access, creating more community gardens, and increasing food literacy, with the latter group working to develop healthy-eating meal preparation educational resources to help families make nutrition choices. They developed a survey and collected data from clients at a local food pantry, which is being analyzed so the information can be used to develop nutrition materials.

Terri Siggins, project coordinator for the FFC, described one initiative—the Healthy Habit bag program—which can be adopted by local food pantries or organizations. Bags include two recipes, shopping list, and nutritional information focused on a specific topic, such as low sodium or whole grains. Food pantries can then partner with faith-based or other local organizations to adopt bags. People who sign up to adopt a bag get the recipes, shopping list and nutritional information—eventually filling the bag with items on the list. The bags—including items to make the two recipes—are delivered to the food pantry and then distributed.

"It's a win-win for everyone involved. The person donating the food is getting nutrition information and recipes as well as the food pantry recipient," she said.

Let It Grow

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) is a nonprofit membership organization that supports community gardening in urban and rural communities by facilitating the formation and expansion of state and regional community gardening networks. William Maynard is a member and past president of ACGA, and works for the City of Sacramento Parks and Recreation Department as the community garden program coordinator.

He explained the ways they assist communities in launching and sustaining their programs. "ACGA can mentor a program from afar with information and direction, and if needed we can discuss with the gardeners getting one of our national board members to come to their city for training."

Sometimes they offer gardening classes, or help install gardens at schools. "ACGA has given grants to schools in the past. I've designed and built a number of school gardens over the years—it's a natural tie-in with community gardens," Maynard said.


At James O. Breen Community Park in St. Charles, Ill., the park district rents 233 garden plots. In 2012, the St. Charles Park District partnered with the Northern Illinois Food Bank (NIFB) to create a system for gardeners to donate excess produce, where people can leave their surplus at a drop-off area on the garden site. In addition, plots that go unrented are planted and maintained by volunteers, with all produce donated to NIFB, who work with soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, and youth and senior feeding programs.

In 2016, more than 4,200 pounds of produce were donated to NIFB, according to Pam Otto, who works for the park district. She added that the NIFB dietician stressed how important it was to get fresh, locally grown foods into their distribution chain since so many donations consist of processed foods. Also, warehouse staff related how food pantry recipients didn't always recognize the importance of fresh foods, or didn't know what to do with foods like squash. "Ideally we'll be able to work with the dietician, and perhaps their marketing people, to create some educational materials and maybe even classes on how to create tasty, healthful meals using fresh produce," Otto said.

AmpleHarvest.org provides another way for gardeners to donate their surplus. You can go to the website, put in your zip code and distance you're willing to travel, and all the registered pantries in that range will pop up—almost 8,000 food pantries across 50 states.

Community Education

The Kitchen Community (TKC) is a nonprofit group working to improve the health of students and communities by creating garden-based education opportunities through the use of their Learning Gardens, which they design and manufacture. Learning Gardens are outdoor classrooms and productive edible gardens installed in underserved schools. They're made up of modular, raised beds and include benches, a shade structure, boulders and art poles. Each one is uniquely designed to fit the look, feel and style of each school yard.

They're currently working in six regions—Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh—with the goal of having at least 100 gardens in each community. This allows them to work more efficiently and hopefully accelerate a shift in food culture within a community. They hope to expand to four more regions by 2020.

But The Kitchen Community's involvement doesn't end after the garden is built. It also provides the school with ongoing support to ensure that they fully benefit from the gardens, including providing teachers with training and a curriculum so they feel confident using the space as an outdoor classroom. Plus, the group's regional teams are dedicated to supporting local gardening and student nutrition education as a whole, and if space is available, workshops may be open to the larger garden community.

Another nonprofit, Fit2beKids, aims to help kids and families lose weight, eliminate medications, and change their behavior by participating in their Fit 'N Fun Club activities, community walks, and culinary and nutrition education. And now, they've partnered with Pevo Health Solutions, a major stakeholder in Global Growables Inc., to help fight childhood obesity. The new program includes classroom and after-school curriculum from Fit2beKids, combined with a Mobile Growable Unit (MGU) to be placed at the school. The MGU is a hydroponic indoor container garden that grows as much as an acre of land, uses 10 percent of the water, and produces up to 15,000 pounds of fresh produce a year. The MGU can feed kids and their families, plus a mechanism is provided to sell the crops at farmers markets and to local chefs, with the funds used to pay any expenses. Any excess cash can be used to fund school programs.

Parks and recreation departments also work to educate families on healthier living practices. The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) assists parks with many initiatives, including its Commit to Health campaign. Part of this program includes nutrition literacy curriculum, Commit to Health: Foods of the Month, designed specifically for parks agencies to implement at their sites. The curriculum's materials are free and downloadable, and include lesson plan guides, posters, a newsletter with tips and recipes, and other activities and resources.

The NRPA has also teamed up with the Partnership for a Healthier America and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to assist at least 2,000 parks and recreation sites with pledges to achieve the Healthy Eating, Physical Activity (HEPA) standards over a five-year period. Resources, tools and support are provided through the Alliance's Healthy Out-of-School-Time (HOST) Initiative website. The 19 HEPA standards are a subset of standards and best practices adopted by the National AfterSchool Association, based on the best available evidence of programs, policies and practices shown to positively impact healthy eating and physical activity behaviors among youth.

Early research involving children, parents and staff who've participated in the Commit to Health and HEPA programs showed that kids exhibited significant increases in knowledge of nutrition topics. Evaluations also revealed that kids and parents alike reported increases in consumption of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Cooking and plating habits improved as well. Staff confirmed that many parents and children shared that their eating habits had changed throughout the programming.

Additionally, the Walmart Foundation provided the NRPA $2.5 million to increase the number of healthy meals that children in low-income communities receive through the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program during out-of-school times. The funding will also help implement NRPA's Commit to Health programs.

While there's more work to be done and people to reach, it's nice to know that communities, schools and other organizations are combatting food insecurities and working to educate people about nutrition and healthier lifestyles. As Sir Winston Churchill put it, "There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies."



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