An Early Start on Nutrition in South LA
Each day, teachers inside Children’s Institute classrooms arrange a spread of fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods for preschool children to eat together as they break from a busy day of learning and playing. What may seem like a routine scene is actually a central program to CII that addresses the food challenges families in South Los Angeles face by promoting basic food education while also promoting affordable and healthy meal plans for families facing food insecurity.
For decades, South LA families have been eating too much processed and fast food that is often cheap, but lacks important nutrients. As a result, residents report significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease compared to other parts of the city. Understanding the importance of a well-balanced diet, CII operates a nutrition program that is poised to expand healthy habits to thousands of families in 2020.
Having only one staff member six years ago, CII now has a team of four nutrition specialists led by Karissa Yu, Registered Dietitian. “We aim to empower parents to be agents of change in the home, prepare nutritious meals and instill good eating habits,” Yu said.
The nutrition program operates at each of CII’s 28 early childhood education sites where team members develop curriculum that introduces students to fruits and vegetables while showing them that nutritious foods can taste good and help them grow into people like their sports idols.
Julie Miranda, a Nutrition Specialist on Yu’s team, said visiting classrooms allow the team to also conduct health assessments. For children registering overweight or having high blood pressure, the team schedules time with family members to make recommendations on healthy meal plans.
Miranda said that eating habits are often influenced by generational routines along with what foods they can afford. So while grocery stores in South LA have increased the availability of fresh food, food education is key to eating healthier.
“A lot of our families come from generations of knowing only one way to cook and our school systems haven’t prioritized nutrition until recently so there’s a lot we can teach families,” Miranda said.
The team recommend nutritious family meals that are under $10 by keeping a list of affordable in-season items that are hardier and can keep kids full. The nutrition team also partners with organizations that address food insecurity and alert families when food is available for reduced prices or free.
“We want families to know there is support out there for them, because we know they want to support their own kids in healthy habits if given the right opportunities,” Miranda said.
CII has been able to build the nutrition program thanks to funding from groups like the Herbalife Nutrition Foundation. In addition to supporting the nutrition team, the foundation helps children gain hands on experience with growing vegetables and helps fund an annual nutrition fair for families.
“Our long-standing relationship with CII is built on our shared vision of a world where everyone has access to quality food and nutrition,” said Jenny Perez, Executive Director of the Herbalife Nutrition Foundation. “Partnerships with impactful community partners like CII is central to our focus of providing access to healthy foods, improving nutrition education, identifying sustainable food resources and raising awareness of the global crisis.”