Education helps low-income families make better health choices, advocates say

Food stamp recipients shouldn’t be relegated to a limited selection of nutrient-poor foods. That idea is the cornerstone of a recent project designed to improve the health of Santa Ana adults and schoolchildren.

The Network for a Healthy California — a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California Department of Public Health and Orange County — is geared towards cultivating long-term lifestyle changes in the low-income population.

This includes Cal Fresh recipients, people who get help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in hopes that it may address the special needs that are present among this group.

Today’s environment challenges efforts to promote an active and healthy lifestyle, said Maridet Ibanez, Administrative Manager at the Orange County Health Care Agency. School aged children need education that will allow them to make healthy choices despite this environment, Ibanez said.

About 21 percent of Orange County’s between ages 5 and 20 were considered obese, according to 2009 Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance data from the California Department of Public Health. Nearly 17 percent of the county’s children aged 2 to 5 also fell into that category.

The Network tackles the problem by way of community and school-based educational initiatives as well as working around the community to ensure continuity. Currently students and their parents at over 30 district schools are participating in the program. Ibanez and the staff at the Orange County Health Department, including registered dieticians, put on community health fairs and work to spread their message in the media. The U.S.D.A. gives the county and school district fifty cents for every dollar of their own they put towards programs they conduct under a scope of work approved by the U.S.D.A.

“The delivered product is information on how to make healthy decisions by promoting three messages: improved consumption of fruits and vegetables, increasing daily physical activity and improving access to healthy foods for this population,” Ibanez said.

The problem, Ibanez says, is multi-faceted. While some of the issues surrounding food choices are cultural, awareness is also a barrier.

“They’re not aware they’re not healthy,” Ibanez said. “I was at a [health] screening, and some don’t know their numbers put them at risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. Our intervention creates that awareness,” Ibanez said.

Jennifer Chavez, Program Coordinator for Network within the Santa Ana Unified School District, said that parents are motivated to change their choices once they see what’s at stake.

”Parents want to provide healthy items to their children and once they have learned what healthy means, they make the necessary changes,” Chavez said.

The Network is broken down into a number of structured regional projects, including the Harvest of the Month program- where a chosen produce item is incorporated into a variety of lesson types to encourage students to change the choices they make about what they eat. This includes educating students about school gardens, shopping at farmers’ markets and community gardens for those in low-income areas.

Network also illustrates the possibility of improving upon existing programs. A key challenge for Cal Fresh recipients Network is knowing how to stretch those limited dollars further – but in the right direction. Purchasing less expensive carbohydrates and sugar-enhanced products have traditionally been the way these families get more for their money.

“Before they just got the check,” Ibanez said. “Now we say first here is the education, then choose the food.”

Network’s comprehensive approach of outreach to not only students and parents, but also school faculty and administrators is a way of ensuring its success.

“We are educating them from many different angles, whether it’s in the classroom, at a parent meeting or at a monthly board meeting,” Chavez said. Bi-lingual health professionals help to facilitate the process, Ibanez said.

Changes to food at school are also intended to help kids make healthier choices. In keeping with a district-wide health policy, schools removed vending machines containing junk food and soda, developed new guidelines for what is served in classroom parties and added nutritious choices to the lunch menus.

Such changes have already resulted in improved health, Chavez said. Physical activity is up, she said, as in consumption of milk, fruit and water.

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