She is trying to reduce the rate of chronic illnesses in Calhoun County one small community class at a time. Parker uses cooking demonstrations, charts, models and simple conversation to help. She expects measurable progress will, at best, come slowly.
For Parker, Wednesday began at the Calhoun County Health Department teaching a class of about a dozen parents and grandparents, many of whom were accompanied by young children, how to choose foods that are low in fat and nutritious. She spoke calmly while babies cried and she passed out coloring sheets and crayons to toddlers without pause while explaining to select healthy food at the grocery store.
Her overall goal is a lofty one, but it’s one she shares with many public health officials, including the team of nutrition educators she works with at the Calhoun County Extension Office. The office, which is an extension of Auburn University, employs a team of about half a dozen educators who spread themselves across the county each day to talk about the importance of consuming a balanced meal that isn’t high in sugar, fat, calories or salt.
“It’s encouraging people to eat a variety,” said Doris Shears, another nutrition educator. “We’re not talking about diets … we’re talking about making overall healthy choices.”
They each reach out to a specific target group. Parker and Marchale Burton work with the county’s urban population.
Amanda Haynes and Shears reach to children and teens using federal programs such as “Have a Healthy Baby,” and “Kids in the Kitchen.” Ruth Sarro and Tiffany Moore work with schoolchildren through the 4-H program and Marandi Watson, who just came on board, will be teaching children nutrition programs using games and advanced technology in a matter of weeks.
All of the women follow federal nutrition guidelines, promote the “My Pyramid” model and work with families of limited means. Some of them are new to nutrition education and some are well-versed in it. Some have even seen the rates of obesity and diabetes rise drastically during their tenure on the job.
Teaching children, adults and even seniors the dry facts about nutrition labels, fitness and caloric intake can be a difficult task. Sometimes their audiences are passive, some said. Children can become distracted and adults are, at times, unresponsive.
There are, of course, positive signs too. And some methods used regularly in the education process help.
Sarro said reaching the community is easier when instructors can incorporate food demonstrations, pass around replicas of fat cells and link certain nutrients to desired ends. The girls in the high schools listen better, for example, when they learn some nutrients can improve the health of their fingernails, she said.
“Kids love food and (demonstrations) are a good way to get their attention, and also teach them some skills,” Sarro said.
The reward on the good and bad days, Parker said, is knowing that she might have gotten through to a few. It helps, she said, to think that some of the people in her Wednesday morning class might take a second glance at the nutrition labels next time they’re in the store.
For now, extension office educators continue to try to reverse the ever-increasing rate of chronic illnesses related to poor diets. They’ll do so with one snippet of information at a time.
“People will call. We will go,” said Burton. “There is so much work out there.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.