Education Programs Help Camden Citizens Make Health Choices, According to Senator Walter Rand Institute at Rutgers–Camden

The Food Bank of South Jersey (FBSJ) is a recognized leader in the region for helping to solve hunger. The organization’s Healthy Living Initiative incorporates several programs that aim to increase healthy eating behaviors and self-sufficiency in the South Jersey community. But are these programs a recipe for success?

To answer that question, the FBSJ utilized the evaluation expertise of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers–Camden.

1004886_605306179489439_594052461_nFrom February to June 2013, the Rand Institute examined the relevance, effectiveness, impact and sustainability of the organization’s Wonder Chefs and Cooking Matters programs at five sites in Camden. The Wonder Chefs program teaches preschool and kindergarten students healthy eating habits and cooking skills, while exercising their math, reading, and fine and gross motor skills. Cooking Matters is a nutrition education program, targeting adults, teens, and children, which teaches families how to make healthy and budget-wise food choices.

The analysis centered on nutrition concepts, the practice of health cooking, label reading, mindful shopping, the identification of specific retained behaviors, and feedback from participants on courses and recipes, according to Kristin Curtis, a senior project coordinator for the Rutgers–Camden policy research center. Qualitative data was gathered – three months to a year following the classes – from 16 focus groups, comprised of pre-teenage/teenage children, parents, and adult participants, as well as key staff at the host sites. In addition, the Rand Institute gathered data by visiting host sites and reviewing relevant documents.

“The qualitative analysis allowed us to understand the perspectives of the participants and hear, in their own words, their thoughts about the courses,” says Curtis.

healthyliving-featureAccording to Curtis, the Rand Institute found that the majority of participants from each course enjoyed the lesson, and learned the importance of healthy eating, label reading, and portion control. She notes that many participants stated that they still use these skills today, including how to make healthier versions of their favorite foods. “The overwhelming favorite was the turkey tacos; they were a big hit,” says Curtis. “Instead of using ground beef, they learned to use leaner turkey meat. Amongst other things, they also learned how to make smoothies, yogurt parfaits, veggie wraps, and healthier alternatives to candy.”

Curtis adds that parents also had the opportunity to voice concerns about the daily challenges of healthy eating in Camden. Many expressed the desire to travel to a supermarket, rather than be forced to shop for subpar produce at corner bodegas, says Curtis. “It’s frustrating to them because they really enjoyed these recipes, and they want to incorporate them into their meals,” she explains.

995931_605308402822550_1181261672_nCurtis emphasizes that feedback from the participants will be vital to the FBSJ in determining whether they should extend the Healthy Living Initiative programs to additional students in participating schools, as well as to additional schools in the district. She adds that the WRI would like to increase focus-group participation rates in the future. However, she notes that those who did participate were fully engaged in the process. “These individuals had never been taught to eat healthy, or that there are these different options out there,” says Curtis. “They were genuinely appreciative for the opportunity to participate in these courses and more than eager to share their experience.”

The Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers–Camden leverages Rutgers’ research faculty to address public policy issues impacting southern New Jersey through applied research, community engagement, and organizational development.

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