Charities Fight Youth Obesity with a Helping of Fresh Produce and Education

Of the 7,000 young patients who the pediatricians at HealthWorks for Northern Virginia in Leesburg see, almost half of them are clinically diagnosed as overweight or obese. That’s roughly 3,500 Loudoun kids whose health is at risk because of their weight.

The doctors offer verbal nudges to encourage kids to stay active and for their parents to serve them healthy food, but all that talk doesn’t always stick. So, they decided to partner with the county’s largest food pantry, local farms and farmers markets to come up with a program that provides low-income families with vegetables and fruits—and pair them with cooking classes and nutrition lessons to make sure that fresh produce gets on kids’ plates.

“The rate of pediatric obesity in our low-income patient population is roughly double that of the county’s population as a whole,” said Carol Jameson, CEO of HealthWorks, which serves Loudoun’s uninsured and underinsured residents. “We want to give families the tools to recognize when weight may be creeping up.”

The pilot program is called Integrated Pediatric Care and made possible through a $60,000 grant from Northern Virginia Health Foundation, plus the help of an army of local charities, including Loudoun Hunger Relief, the Loudoun Pediatric Obesity Collation, Loudoun Valley Homegrown Markets Cooperative, Real Food for Kids and A Farm Less Ordinary.

“We were trying to pull together a network of local nonprofits to be able to get this program off the ground,” said Erika Huddleston, associate director of Loudoun Hunger Relief.

For the past six months, the 25 families who were enrolled in the program received weekly deliveries of produce boxes, brimming with fruits and vegetables. The boxes were stocked with produce from A Farm Less Ordinary, a nonprofit farm in Bluemont that employs adults with developmental disabilities, and food from local farmers markets, as well as recipes that offered tips on how to prepare each item.

“We started getting these boxes full of colorful vegetables every week—and vegetables that I had never bought before,” said Sheron Thomas, who was in the program with her four grandchildren. “I didn’t know how to prepare some of them like spaghetti squash—and then the classes started.”

The families also attended six monthly classes that brought in chefs from the Real Food for Kids organization to teach hands-on cooking and nutrition lessons. They encouraged kids as young as 5 to roll up their sleeves and help their parents and grandparents in the kitchen.

“We made burrito bowls with squash and beans. We made a big salad. I cut sweet potatoes into fries,” 9-year-old Asia Thomas said. “It was a lot of fun.”

They learned that kale can be baked into chips or blanched and frozen, and that baked sweet potato “fries” are just as tasty—maybe even tastier—than typical French fries, among other cooking tips.

“There was a dinner menu every night around our curriculum,” Huddleston said. “The partners every month borrowed best practices in the nutrition field to really support the medical treatment that was already going on at HealthWorks.”

The instructors also encouraged the adults to get their kids more involved in meal preparation. Thomas said it showed her that even her 5-year-old grandson can, with a special tool, cut sweet potatoes or snap the ends off of green beans with a bit of guidance.

Asia Thomas, 12, helps her grandmother prepare vegetables for dinner. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
It’s all translated into healthier lifestyles for her family. Asia, a fourth-grader at Guilford Elementary School, grabs a baggie of chopped veggies for her after-school snack instead of a Little Debbie, and now opts for veggie pizza over pepperoni.

“She’s lost 10 pounds in the first two months of the program. I couldn’t believe it,” Thomas said.

Aurora and José Resendiz, siblings who live in Leesburg, learned a thing or two about the negative side effects of soda. “We saw that the sweet drinks we drink and love are not the best option to hydrate you,” 12-year-old Aurora explained. “From science, we now know that if you eat or drink something that has too much sweet or salt in it, it dehydrates you instead of hydrates. It is better to drink plain, fresh, refreshing water.”

She has also shed a few pounds—and, what’s more, she feels better. “I have had so much more energy and feel much happier,” Aurora said.

Most kids in the program have lost weight and, for many, it’s meant they no longer have to regularly see a pediatrician. After hearing the challenge to “eat the rainbow” from the program’s organizers over six months, they’re quicker to try new foods, and after experiencing the fun of a Zumba class, they often favor dancing to music or playing outdoors over watching TV.

Thomas said she hopes more families will get an opportunity to see the bounty of produce that’s available right in Loudoun County, and learn how to get kids to eat it.

“We can’t always afford to buy all that stuff, so it really was a blessing,” she said. “This program would do every family good.”

It took a year of planning to bring all of the nonprofit organizations on board and orchestrate the Integrated Pediatric Care program, but Jameson said if the grant funding is available, they’d love to do it again.

“Now that we’ve successfully done it, I think it will help us replicate it and help other communities replicate it,” she said.

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