Making healthy choices isn’t always as easy as it sounds. It’s even harder if your food choices are limited.
Thousands of children in Wake County do not have access to foods they need to thrive and maintain a healthy weight. These children have food insecurities and do not know when or how they will get their next meal. Consequently, they are likely to both miss meals and fill up on more readily available low-cost, high-calorie foods with poor nutritional value.
Through Hands-On Health, a grant project funded by the John Rex Endowment, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is working to stem and turn back the increase of overweight and malnourished children in Wake County. Focusing in low-income communities, the Hands-On Health team is exploring plausible, individualized community solutions for improving local access to healthy foods, increasing awareness about food choices and empowering families to make changes.
Hands-On Health takes a collaborative neighborhood-based, environmental and educational approach to cultivating change for children with a focus on eating, exercise and nutrition-lifestyle choices. The three-year grant project is being targeted in communities with children but engages all ages. It is structured to help community members identify strengths and weaknesses, develop strategies, and create resources that will directly meet their unique needs.
Hands-On Health is already working with three community groups: Mayview community, Alliance Medical Ministry, and Neighbor to Neighbor Outreach. The communities and organizations selected for Hands-On Health exhibit both a need and interest in developing a healthier culture.
Groups and organizations participating in Hands-On Health are able to tap into the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s existing resources for food access, community gardens, produce preparation, cooking classes and nutrition education. “By tailoring to the interests and needs of a group, we are allowing the citizens to handpick what’s best for their community – to develop something of their own,” said Tonya Post, director of programs at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.
Nurturing the Soil
Each new community that the Hands-On Health team reaches out to has a unique makeup. The community soil determines what will flourish and which nurturing approach is best – literally and metaphorically.
“You can’t just plant the seed and expect it to grow,” said Nickie Charles, Hands-On Health program coordinator. “First, you have to dig up the earth, take out the rocks and turn the soil over.” Although Charles uses the analogy in a broader sense to talk about the process of creating change within a community, the Hands-On Health team has actually helped all three groups start community gardens.
Each community garden has taken on a life of its own, emphasizes Amanda Soltes, nutrition coordinator at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. They may choose to plant different fruits and vegetables based on the soil and, of course, on the food the community wants. “When you’re starting a garden and growing within any community, there’s going to be changes and challenges,” said Soltes. “For example, we’ve got fire ants in one garden, but we’ll find a solution together.” Imaginably, resolving a fire ant problem is a gardening experience that a community can rally around and learn from in more ways than one!
The Hands-On Health approach empowers people to break down barriers. When community members are engaged in conversations and decisions, ideas take root – the soil becomes richer. “We’re in a nurturing role, but the community itself is going through the growing process,” said Charles.
Planting for the Future
When kids work in the garden, they get to touch, see, smell, taste and take home produce. There’s value and a sense of pride when youth can contribute to their community. More generational ownership can lead to a promising future for the sustainability of the gardens. “As the first two community gardens have grown, so has interest from youth,” said Soltes. “We’re excited about the future likelihood of Youth Advisory Councils.”
Hands-On Health is working with youth while they’re already in learning mode through Neighbor to Neighbor and YMCA Community HOPE afterschool mentoring programs. School performance is often tied to nutrition and healthy choices so it’s a logical fit to incorporate garden activities which provide experiential learning and access to healthy foods.
The Hands-On Health program at Alliance Medical Ministry offers a unique way to tie in a powerful message about healthy choices while families already have personal health on their minds. The group broke ground for their new community garden in April 2010, and the neighboring Boys & Girls Clubs Teen Center has welcomed the opportunity for youth to learn about fresh produce and actively participate in planting for the future.
Kids are honest, and they’ll tell you when they don’t like something – or make a funny face at something they’ve never tried before. However, they’re also curious and much more likely to try foods if they’ve been involved in picking them and preparing them.
It’s not much different for adults. If you have never acquired a taste for something, it’s not likely you’ll choose it. Once we taste something and learn how to best prepare it, we’re much more inclined to dish up a serving.
“Exposure to new flavors is necessary to build sustainable interest in healthy eating,” said Katherine Andrew, director of nutrition at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. The Hands-On Health team brings bags of groceries to Mayview to help fill the healthy food access gap while also allowing families to try new things – giving them a taste of something that they could feasibly harvest in their garden.
Recipe for Success
The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is finding that the secret ingredients for cooking up healthy community changes are more likely to be discovered when everyone has a chance to contribute and all options are on the table. As possibilities simmer, the Hands-On Health team tosses in new opportunities by offering a menu of hands-on educational experiences.
Hand-On Health blends a mix of education and fun in an effort to satisfy varying wants and needs. Operation Frontline cooking classes are offered for interested youth and adults. Local chefs and nutritionists teach participants how to prepare and cook seasonally available produce. At the same time, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is helping communities sustain their new gardens. The Hands-On Health team is introducing things in parallel in order to develop a full circle of understanding. “We’re taking a very multi-layered approach,” said Andrew. “It takes a little of this and a little of that.”
Reaping the Benefits
From the youth who take the initiative to check in on the elderly and bring them fresh produce, to a grandmother who has previous farm gardening knowledge to pass down, together the communities are discovering new ways to contribute to a healthy environment.
Leaders of all ages have emerged. Some stepped up to start and participate in a walking group, which according to Charles involves a great deal of talking, too. “They’re sharing knowledge, connecting and building a tighter network,” said Charles. “They even started Double Dutch and Step teams for the kids.”
The gardens are becoming a natural fit and a popular choice for youth. Local organizations such as the YMCA are choosing to reward kids with garden activities such as planting strawberries and learning about worms. It’s a place to play, get dirty, explore and let the imagination run wild. Some of the kids of Mayview have even recently created a clever Veggie Rap video
“Each community has its own rhythm,” explains Charles. By putting a finger on the pulse of individual communities, and working to the beat of each unique group, Hands-On Health keeps things fun while helping create a healthier tomorrow for children.
Stay tuned to updates about the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Hands-On Health and find out how you can volunteer in the Community Gardens. Learn more about other projects supported by the John Rex Endowment through the Healthy Weight Initiative.