By Kelsey Buckner
Tyler families were in for a surprise when they learned a nutrition label is more than just a colorful feature on the back of a package.
“Lack of knowledge about healthy eating is an issue for many of the parents of our students,” said Astilma Vargas, director of Niños de Promesa preschool, a Buckner academic preparedness program for children in the Tyler area. “We came up with the idea of a summer nutrition class and promoted it among our students’ parents and adults who attend our ESL classes.”
The five-week nutrition class was a collaboration between Buckner, Bethesda Health Clinic and East Texas Food Bank. Participants were in for many ‘ah-ha!’ moments over the five weeks of class. Pam Van Meter, health education specialist at Bethesda Clinic, taught these parents about healthy living and said it has been an experience for her and the participants.
“It is going excellent,” Van Meter said. “It’s been an eye-opener because the first week we did ‘my plate’ and labels, and how to read the nutrition label. A lot of the women did not know how to read the nutrition label – they just thought it was part of the packaging.”
Several members of the class knew very little about healthy living, and Van Meter was shocked by the stories they told her. She said the most surprising part was not that only one person knew how to read a food label, but that many class participants thought feeding their children chips was nutritious.
“They thought when they gave their children Cheetos, that because there’s cheese in it, it was healthy. But it’s chemically nothing – it’s non-nutrient.”
When Van Meter heard this, she said she began teaching them what to feed their children. The foods she recommends are healthier, but still make for a tasty bite in reasonable proportions. She said she also showed them alternatives to drinking sodas and other sugary drinks.
“Most of the class didn’t realize how much sugar was in sodas,” she said. “I’ve been showing them different healthy recipes. I also showed them how to make fruit waters – just to try and help them get away from sugary drinks.”
Van Meter said teaching the class how to eat certain foods in responsible amounts was definitely an ‘ah-ha!’ takeaway moment for them. She said they had their food proportions backwards.
“You’re supposed to fill your plate half with vegetables and fruit and then a fourth with starch,” Van Meter said. “They had it reversed. They’d only have little bits of vegetables and then have massive amounts of meats, proteins and starches. Portion control and labels – that’s the key.”
As they learned to eat healthier, Van Meter said members of the class would come back each week and share experiences or changes they made in their diet. Many were excited to apply what they learned because several have a history of obesity and diabetes in their families. Van Meter said it is something they can put an end to.
“They can actually do things to counteract and break the habits that caused those problems,” she said. “Their being empowered by nutrition to make a healthy choice – not only by themselves, but for their children – is going to impact generations.”
A mother of a student at Niños de Promesa said she is pleased with the class and that she did not realize how much she did not know.
“It’s good; I am learning,” she said. “I need to give to my family more healthy foods and I have learned that.”
She said she is sad to see the class end. The class is finishing up with a “field trip” to the grocery store where they will get hands-on experience shopping for nutritious foods.
Van Meter said because the class was a success, she will most likely open another nutrition class in the fall. She said this class is not something she teaches for people to make temporary changes. Instead, it teaches the tools to help them make healthier decisions for themselves and their families.
“It’s very important. It’s not a diet – it’s a lifestyle,” Van Meter said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go on this diet.’ No, it’s a lifestyle behavioral change. This is for a lifetime.”
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