Feature Article - February 2017
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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.