Nonprofit combats obesity and diabetes by cooking with local kids
Ever since Yeyen Gunawan, local nutritionist and former owner of Cafe La Vie in Downtown Santa Cruz, took her 3-year-old daughter to a nutrition class she was helping with at Live Oak Elementary School several months ago, the little girl has been demanding more vegetables.
The 2-year-old local nonprofit Nourishing Generations Educational Project hosted the class, which included a lesson about “rainbow foods” that explained to the kids in attendance why it is important to eat fruits and vegetables from every color of the rainbow.
“Every day [my daughter] goes, ‘I think I haven’t gotten the purple yet,’ and so on,” says Gunawan, who began working with Nourishing Generations two months ago. “It’s amazing because of how much empowerment she got from that one class she kind of attended. She’s taking in that little information she had and putting it into practice. It’s powerful.”
Nourishing Generations is a team of natural chefs, holistic nutritionists and fitness trainers who have assembled in response to the unprecedented rates of childhood obesity and diabetes that continue to plague Santa Cruz County.
Diabetes affects 25.8 million people of all ages—8 percent of the entire population—in the United States, according to the 2012 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project (CAP) Report. Diabetes is a major cause of heart disease and stroke and is the seventh leading cause of death in the nation. In Santa Cruz County, the percentage of CAP survey respondents who reported that a doctor had told them that they had diabetes or pre-diabetes, other than during pregnancy, increased from 10 percent in 2007 to 12 percent in 2011.
The 2012 CAP also shows that more than one in four—or 25.3 percent—of Santa Cruz’s low-income children ages 5 to 19 were clinically obese in 2010. This figure that is higher than the 2010 California average of 23.3 percent. Santa Cruz County’s obesity rate in 2010 marked a 1 percent net increase in obesity rates from 2002 to 2010 in children 5 through 19. The obesity rate for children under 5 years of age in Santa Cruz County was 12.4 percent in 2010, which is slightly lower than the state average of 14 percent.
In order to combat these health issues, members of the Nourishing Generations teach hands-on healthy cooking classes to third through fifth grade children in afterschool programs and community centers in predominantly underserved populations of the county.
Nancy Birang, local holistic nutritionist, culinary artist, and co-founder of Nourishing Generations, says the program implements nutritional games and fitness classes, and local professional chefs empower kids to choose healthy food options.
“We wanted to really make a difference with the statistics, and what’s happening in our community,” she says. “If people aren’t concerned, then they aren’t paying attention. This is already stressing our healthcare expenditure, and it’s going to cripple our healthcare in the future. We know this is an actual crisis.”
Birang and her fellow Nourishing Generations cofounders decided to take a community focused approach to solving the problem. The founders, local nutritionists, chefs and fitness instructors, pooled their skill sets and began working with kids.
One game Nourishing Generations introduces in its lessons is called Snack Class. The game teaches kids about healthy shopping. The students sort through a variety of snacks and scrutinize their ingredient labels for “nutritional bandits” like high fructose corn syrup and other common synthetic ingredients.
“They have to decide what’s healthy, and it isn’t always as simple as an apple and bag of Doritos,” says Birang.
Karen Haralson is a local nutritionist, chef and program coordinator for Nourishing Generations. She says hands-on cooking classes and games like Snack Class encourage children to take charge of their own eating habits.
“It’s empowering for them,” she says.
Birang, who worked as a nutritionist for more than 35 years, says she and the other founders of Nourishing Generations were inspired to start the program after working in the field with sick adults and children 10 years old or younger that were overweight and diabetic with high cholesterol, heart disease, and other problems. Realizing that the foods people were eating and feeding their kids were a key component of the problem, they decided that education could be a valuable combatant.
“It’s wrong for us to have children that are sick in a way that is preventable,” Birang says. “Diabetes and obesity, those are preventable. We were really, really concerned, and we feel we have the skill set and experience to make a difference. We decided that the approach we wanted to take was to go into the schools and work with the kids.”
For their next project, Nourishing Generations plans to team up with local nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank in the spring to host healthy cooking classes.
To support or learn more about Nourishing Generations, visit nourishinggenerations.org.