First lady Michelle Obama has become a household name in many African-American households across the country because of her stance to combat obesity. Obama’s national campaign has sparked changes in school diets, menus at fast food chains, restaurants and millions of family dining room tables.

Inspired by the first lady’s efforts, former president of the D.C. school board member and educator, Wilma Harvey decided to reach out to a population hit most by obesity – children. Harvey was successfully awarded a grant for a summer camp designed by her nonprofit organization, Education Plus 2 (EP2), to provide families with the skills needed to practice and promote healthy lifestyles in the prevention of childhood obesity.

Education Plus 2 recruited families from Wards 1 and 7 that were identified by stakeholders who direct services to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) with school age children between the ages of 10-14.

“I knew after years in the field of education in order for students to be productive in the classroom, they must come to school healthy,” said Harvey.

Serving as a liaison between the families and the established educational systems that train children/youth, EP2 sought to bridge the gap by providing a nurturing support component—information and referral center—to meet identified need and reduce the demise of the target population.

Catholic Charities became involved in the venture to share information with TANF Families about healthy nutrition as it relates to preparation and learning how to maximize dollars when shopping for families.

“Being a personal trainer, I’ve notice when you talk to people about their health, unless there is an incentive, they don’t want to talk about their health,” said Triston Cooper, site director for the Benning Park Family Community Center. “The incentive in this model was the nutritional health of their families. This community is very receptive to self help.”

Cooper shared with EP2 coordinators that in an earlier health screening at the center, it had one 8-year-old with high blood pressure. The disease is not uncommon in the District.

“I appreciated everything that I learned. I’m raising nine children from ages three months to 11 years old. I’m going to stop eating and feeding junk food so that we can be healthier,” said 28-year-old Michael Brown.

Research by the Department of Health (DOH) shows that in the District of Columbia more than 50 percent of school age children are obese. In the last 10 years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of school age children suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases.

“My passion around this program dates back to my childhood when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in the sixth grade,” said Harvey. “This information hit home.”

Data revealed that TANF families have higher rates of many of these chronic diseases are a result of diets and lifestyles that has caused the epidemic rise in childhood obesity in this population. Chronic diseases are generational, according to DOH, due to poor diets and lack of exercise.

The workshops gave information about SHARE (Self Help and Resource Exchange) and utilizing its services to get affordable healthy fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. for half the price.

The topics covered during the camp included societal and environmental influence, food intake, exercises, families, community health, recreational activities and schools.

Program objectives for families included:

Completing a personalized family health tree
Designing a school readiness kit on tips to fight obesity
Participating in community social marketing campaigns
Providing information in common gathering places, meetings and sites in their neighborhoods

Shemika Wood, 27, mother of two girls ages 8 and 10, said her way of buying foods has changed a s a result of the camp. “I learned a lot and will take heed to what I found out. When I learned that certain blood types react to meats differently, it was a wakeup call,” said Wood.

EP2 events coordinator Mazie Holland said more families should be exposed to this program. “When the parents found out that in can foods, the lead in the seam bleeds into the foods over a period and aids cancer, all of them vowed to make changes,” said Holland.

Catholic Charities admired the receptiveness of the parents. “The workshops have been very well received by the participants evidenced by testimony of changes made to diet and consumption, namely sugar and sodium intake,” said spokeswoman Kim Edge.

The fight continues. “The significance of the outcomes of this camp experience will provide these families with the initial stages of becoming self-sufficient in understanding how to create better healthy life styles that are within their financial and budgetary constraints,” said Harvey.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO