Maybe you already know this, but March is National Nutrition Month. And that’s a good thing!
It’s no secret that developed countries are faced with soaring obesity rates, particularly for children but also adults. Type 2 diabetes affects more than 27 million Americans. And poor dietary habits are a critical factor in the onset of cardiac disease. None of this is the result of lack of food; it’s the result of, well, bad nutrition.
In fact, according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, typical American diets exceed the recommended intake levels or limits in four categories: calories from solid fats and added sugars; refined grains; sodium; and saturated fat, but Americans eat less than the recommended amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, dairy products, and oils.
Good nutrition has been an important focus area for Junior Leagues for decades. So much so, that AJLI’s Kids in the Kitchen program, now in its 9th year, is the core nutrition program for more than 200 Leagues.
But what’s also fascinating is to see the ways that individual Junior Leagues have created new and innovative initiatives to address nutrition problems in their communities.
Take the Growing Up Gardens program of the Junior League of Monterey County.
Although Monterey County is the heart of California’s agriculture industry, the percentage of children there who are overweight or obese is an alarming 45%, according to JLMC. Enter Growing Up Gardens, which educates area schoolchildren about nutrition and healthier ways by introducing them at young ages to school-based gardens of edible plants. (Studies have proven that children who learn in gardens at an early age are more likely to be active and to enjoy fresh produce!)
The Growing Up Gardens initiative was formed in 2011, when JLMC members voted to focus on childhood obesity and nutrition. Since then, JLMC and its community partners have opened eight gardens and plans are in place for installations at four additional schools. JLMC has even hired a “garden coordinator” to help target additional schools, promote the projects, and monitor the garden sites for potential problems and issues. Meanwhile, continues to work with local corporate partners to fund the installations.
JLMC’s objective is to become a “recognized local leader in reducing the obesity rates in our childhood population.”
Fresh produce is also at the center of the Junior League of Ann Arbor’s Produce Distribution program. Recognizing that poor nutrition can lead to lower academic achievement as well as childhood obesity, JLAA partnered in 2012 with Food Gatherers, a Washtenaw County’s food bank and food rescue organization.
The Produce Distribution program fights both childhood hunger and obesity by providing families with a monthly delivery of fresh fruits, vegetables and nutritious snacks along with health education. The program is offered free of charge to families with children at a local elementary school who need food assistance, and is intended to supplement federal programs like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Distribution events are held in inclusive, interactive, market-like settings. Parents and children “shop” produce offerings and select up to 20 pounds of free, fresh food per family.
The food distributed is purchased, rescued from local businesses, or donated through organizations such as Feeding America.
The Junior League of Phoenix takes the fresh-produce-is-best idea but puts it on a refitted bus – formerly part of the Valley Metro fleet – and sets up mobile markets offering fresh, affordable and high-quality fruits and vegetables in food deserts in the Discovery Triangle area, a 25-square-mile area encompassing large parts of downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe.
As a founding sponsor of the Fresh Express Mobile Food Bus from the Discovery Triangle Development Corporation, JLP is responsible for a nutrition curriculum for Fresh Express customers that includes handouts on healthy eating and nutritional guidelines, recipes for utilizing fresh produce, and cooking/recipe demonstrations. The Fresh Express makes stops at schools as well as senior centers and community centers in the area.
The Junior League of Greater Orlando puts nutrition directly in the hands of kids through its HIP Kids, program. (HIP stands for healthy, informed, and playful.) Created in partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, HIP Kids provides access points to nutritious food and nutrition information at several levels. First, participants at a local community center receive a piece of fresh fruit daily as an after school snack. Additionally, each family at the community center receives a “Pantry Plus” box each month, with more than 20 pounds of nutritional meal staples. Finally, JLGO provides hot meals to HIP Kids ten times per year.
But one of the most important facets of the program is the enrichment component. Fourteen times per year, JLP members instruct HIP Kids participants on healthy eating, exercise, and responsible choices. Also, family dinner nights four times a year bring families and speakers from the community together to share information on improving family nutrition and overall health.
Now in its third year, the Junior League of Sarasota’s A Menu for Nutrition works through community agencies to offer nutrition education and awareness presentations to groups of different ages on the importance of good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. The presentations last from 15-30 minutes and include one or two presenters who speak on the chosen topic, engage the audience with a brief physical activity, and solicit questions. If requested, the presenters also conduct a live food demonstration.
A key component of the program puts JLS and its members in one-year partnerships with a local community organizations for the purpose of creating or enhancing a nutrition curriculum. A recent partner was Girls Incorporated of Sarasota County. JLS created and presented a six-part nutrition education series, built relationships with local farms and facilitated hands-on education and field trip for girls wishing to learn more about where food comes from and how to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables. Additionally, JLS helped to plan and build the Girls, Inc. garden, which accommodates Florida’s fall and spring planting, cultivation and harvesting schedules.
But healthy eating and nutritious choices really are for everyone. The common denominator across all of these Junior League programs is the importance of making healthy choices about nutrition and incorporating those choices into a healthy lifestyle. And that concept is precisely the one selected as the theme of the 2015 National Nutrition Month: “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle.” The sponsors of National Nutrition Month – the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – encourage everyone to adopt eating and physical activity plans that are focused on consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices and getting daily exercise in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of chronic disease and promote overall health.
Sounds like good advice!