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Keeping those New Year's resolutions alive

Near the top of every adult’s list of New Year’s resolutions is a vow to eat healthier, exercise more, lose weight, and reduce the stress on one’s heart, lungs and overall body. But by the time the calendar reaches spring, those resolutions have been kicked down the road and any fledgling efforts in January and February turn into broken promises to oneself for another year.

In communities that can be described as “food deserts”—with little easy access to healthy food like fresh fruits and vegetables, but with plenty of opportunities to chow down on hot chips and pop from the corner store—the challenge to stay on track with these goals goes beyond simple lack of willpower. Fitness and exercise programs also can be few and far between in such neighborhoods. 

LISC/Chicago funds and otherwise supports programs through NCP, Elev8 and other efforts, that promote smarter eating, culinary skills and fitness activities that lead to healthier lifestyles and more active communities.

“Healthy people are an important part of a healthy community,” said Chris Brown, director, education programs for LISC/Chicago. “Everyone needs access to knowledge and opportunity to lead a healthy lifestyle. NCP lead agencies are recognizing the importance of people’s health to the overall health of their neighborhoods and are taking action.”

This is the third in an occasional series of articles about food-related efforts supported by LISC/Chicago. To see the first, about farmers’ markets, gardening and urban agriculture, please click here. To see the second, about food pantries and other efforts to provide free food, please click here.

From kitchens to community centers

Photo: Ed Finkel

South Chicago resident Betty Jo Nichols followed her passion to become a nutrition and cooking coach, providing workshops everywhere from people's kitchens, to community centers, to the Green Summit activities sponsored through NCP lead agency Claretian Associates.

Life as a nutrition proselytizer started for Betty Jo Nichols when a fellow parishioner at Salem Baptist Church, who was training her to be a Sunday school teacher, commented that she constantly talked about healthy eating and wondered whether Nichols could pass along any tips and tricks.

The woman, who then weighed 284 pounds, enlisted Nichols as her personal nutrition trainer and is now down to a size 14, Nichols says. “I taught her how to cook more healthily, eat smaller portions, eat fruits and vegetables, cook with more nutrients,” she recalls. “She did it as a change in her life.”

That led to another woman asking Nichols the same thing, and before long she was being invited to people’s kitchens and then to community centers and after-school programs near her home in South Chicago and in Uptown, where she manages the computer-lab at a five-building complex for the formerly homeless.

Nichols has been in fund raising mode for what she’s now calling the Homemaking Skills Institute, which has offered programs in South Chicago in several people’s homes, the Germano-Millgate Center, and during the Green Summit environmental fair last spring. She received a $1,000 grant from LISC/Chicago in 2010 for a pilot workshop at Pilgrim Baptist Church during a senior health fair there.

“I teach them how to prepare food differently, to prevent illnesses they were creating for their own bodies,” says Nichols. “You would be surprised how many older adults don’t have the life skills on how to prevent obesity, how to grocery shop, how to cut down on salt in your diet.”

She has partnerships in the works with the YMCA Street Intervention in conjunction with this summer’s Hoops in the Hood program and also plans to work with the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago’s Children.

“This is my passion,” Nichols says. “I could talk to you about it all day—the fact that I can take something that comes up out of the ground and make something marvelous out of it.”

Food experiences—and a university certificate
Parents and other community members at Emmett Louis Till Math & Science Academy in Woodlawn will spend six weeks this spring learning healthy cooking skills—and earning a certificate from the University of Illinois Extension—thanks to a partnership brokered through NCP Woodlawn.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Emmett Till Math & Science Academy has been one of several locations where Woodlawn residents have earned culinary certificates from the University of Illinois-Extension through a program brokered by NCP Woodlawn.

“I do a lot of food experiences,” instructor Marsha Zanders of the extension program told attendees during an introductory session on March 29. “We’ll show you that eating healthy doesn’t have to taste bad. … I’m going to teach you some recipes, and I want you to go home and try them.”

During the initial session, Zanders asked the attendees to list everything they had eaten in the past 24 hours to get them thinking about what they consume on a daily basis. She made it clear no one was going to be graded.

“Feel free to put down six cookies, or nine donuts. Put your half a chicken down if you had half a chicken,” she encouraged them. For the remaining sessions, they are undertaking cooking demonstrations that will focus on healthier fare.

Similar cohorts have already received this programming at Carnegie, Fisk and Waldorf schools as well as the Parkway Gardens housing complex, says Terrance Miller, NCP organizer at NCP Woodlawn. The certificates they receive open the door to possible careers in the foodservice industry, in addition to improving their diets at home, he says.

The partnership came about through NCP Woodlawn board member Mattie Butler, executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN), Miller adds. “We want to take this to another level,” he says of the programming. “This will introduce us to the school and get the parents active in preparing these meals. Then we’re hoping to compile the parents’ recipes into a community cookbook.”

Healthy eating at pantries
Homeless people and others who frequent food pantries don’t always have the opportunity to eat the healthiest meals. Some have conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, yet the food they’re offered is high in fat or sodium, which only exacerbates their health problems.

“Some of the food is not good food,” says Dennis Ware, president and executive director of the Englewood Food Network. “It kinds of aggravates the problems that some of our clients have.”

Through a grant from CLOCC and in partnership with NCP lead agency Teamwork Englewood, the Englewood Food Network connected with culinary students at Kennedy-King College to pull together a salad bar for Sunday dinners and provide information about healthy eating to those who frequented six of the network’s 35 pantries, Ware says.

A $5,000 grant from LISC/Chicago enabled the food network to compile a cookbook of 15 healthier menu items that they were able to print and distribute to clients with the ability to go home and cook for themselves, he says. In addition, the grant provided services of a chef who taught some of the clients first-hand.

That programming lasted from early 2010 through the very beginning of this year, Ware says. “We did what we could with it,” he says. “We had a pretty good response.”

Cooking demos down on the (urban) farm
Elsewhere around Englewood, Growing Home has offered cooking demonstrations in partnership with the Washburn Institute at Kennedy-King College--and in some cases with help from board member Chef Kocoa Winbush--during movie nights held the first Wednesday of every month.

Outreach coordinator Seneca Kern figures they've had about eight such demonstration and sampling events during the past year for the benefit of moviegoers at the Wood Street Urban Farm, who are primarily local Englewood residents.

"We show folks exactly how to prepare some of the food that we are growing, some of the things maybe they've cooked poorly before," Kern says, like collard greens that have had their nutrients sauteed right out of them. "We show them how to do it light, with garlic," he says. "We substantiate what we do on the farm, and why it's important to eat this food."

On May 21, Growing Home will hold a cooking competition at Wood Street, which will include tours, workshops, music and sampling. "It's specifically geared toward the Englewood community," Kern says. "We also invite folks from the rest of Chicago."

People from the North Side or the suburbs are often easier sells, he adds. "It's more difficult to get people from around the corner, who have passed [the farm] a million times. Even if they're interested, they're a little shy."

Fruit smoothies and pickled vegetables
Students at Ames Elementary School in Logan Square spent a recent Monday afternoon poring over a cheat sheet that showed what fresh produce is in season for each month and puzzled over how to create a healthy menu item based on the items listed during their birthday months.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Students at Ames Middle School in Logan Square learn healthy cooking and eating through an Elev8 after-school program provided by the nonprofit Seven Generations Ahead.

For students with winter birthdays, the assignment was simple: nothing grows in Illinois during December, January or February, at least not outside of a greenhouse. The others mentally assembled a variety of fruit salads, vegetable dishes and other items during the after-school activity part of LISC/Chicago’s Elev8 program. “It could be a soup. It could be a salad. It could be a pie,” instructor Cassandra Orr, who works for the nonprofit Seven Generations Ahead, suggested to them. “Try to come up with one dish.”

The monthly breakdown led to a discussion on why common features of the mostly Latino students’ diets, like bananas and plantains, did not appear anywhere on the list. “That’s because you’re eating the food of your culture,” Orr explained, which is native to Puerto Rico, Mexico and other subtropical countries.

The 22-week class has given the students the opportunity to make everything from fruit smoothies, to pickled vegetables, to jam made out of blueberries, peaches and honey. “They did not believe they would be able to make jam,” she says. “It was delicious,” adds a student.

Pumping up fitness
Parents and families at Orozco Academy have gained a wealth of knowledge about nutrition, mental health and fitness through the Family Health Club provided by Alivio Medical Center as part of the Elev8 program.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Alivio Medical Center has brought fitness and nutrition-oriented programming to Orozco Academy through LISC/Chicago's Elev8 program.

Participants go through eight-day cycles that include six days of physical activity interrupted by a half-day health awareness session partway through, followed by a day of health screenings, and then a full day of the health awareness, says Marco Garduno, youth, schools and family programs coordinator for Alivio.

“We ask them, ‘What condition or illness would you like to know more about?’ ” he says. “It’s a good core group. They’re very, very consistent. These individuals are really engaged. They come up with their own ideas.”

Participants also select from among physical activity choices like aerobics, kickboxing, yoga and strength training, Garduno says. During family nights twice per month, Alivio gives husbands (mostly) and children a chance to join in, as well.

“The purpose of this program is to involve the whole family unit,” he says. Otherwise, “they have to go back home and deal with the whole family unit that did not take our program,” which works against keeping consistent fitness routines.

When people start in the program, they’re unsure of themselves, says instructor Adriana Corea, but that changes as the weeks go by. “They can sustain physical activity for a longer time,” she says. “They have better self-esteem and body image.”

The Family Health Club also covers healthy cooking, which became the focus for six weeks last fall and will again in the spring, Garduno says. They make sure to prepare recipes that participants realistically might continue to cook at home, he says.

“We let them know, ‘Bring your own home recipe, tell us how you prepare it, and we’ll see how we can help make it healthier,’ ” he says.

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