HEALTHY LIVING – 4-H Fights the Obesity Epidemic in Louisiana

Bruce Schultz  |  1/31/2017 3:59:52 PM

Bruce Schultz

Louisiana has the dubious distinction as the most obese state in the nation, with 36.2 percent of adults overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Obese adults have an increased risk for a number of problems, including dia­betes, hypertension, stroke, cancer and sleep apnea.

The adult obesity rate in Louisiana gives the 4-H Healthy Living Program motivation and urgency. “Our main focus is to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and increase physical activity,” said Lanette Hebert, southwest regional 4-H coordinator.

At the state level the food and fitness camp for families at Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center is where families learn about different ways of cooking healthy food and exercising. The program uses the original 4-H strategy of educating chil­dren who take the message back to their parents.

Hebert said 4-H has a unique opportunity to address obesity because Louisiana 4-H has access to children across the state through partnerships with school districts. “Louisiana 4-H can reach kids with limited transportation options, from all back­grounds, living in all corners of the state.”

She said more than 26,000 kids participated in some type of healthy living programming as a part of club activities, class­room projects and various regional and state events.

Grants from the National 4-H Council, Wal-Mart Foundation, UnitedHealthCare and ConAgra provide substan­tial funding for programming. Healthy living grants received by Louisiana 4-H in 2015-16 included $150,000 from ConAgra, $55,000 from UnitedHealthCare and $65,000 from Wal-Mart.

Lekeisha Lucas-Powell said her work as 4-H agent in East Carroll Parish is especially challenging in a parish where almost half of the population lives below the poverty level. “We were once noted as one of the poorest places in America by Time magazine,” she said.

People who are poor and uneducated tend to eat less healthy, she said. “There a lot of people unaware of what is healthy and what’s not.”

Lucas-Powell said she has formed partnerships with organizations, local businesses, churches and law enforce­ment to teach children about the importance of good nutri­tion and exercise.

She regularly shows students vegetables growing in a garden. For many, it’s the first time they realized that vegetables grow in soil. “You would be surprised at how amazed the children are to see food grown in a garden,” she said.

Every year during spring break, she said, fourth through sixth graders attend an event focusing on healthy living. Many older students in 4-H help teach the sessions along with LSU AgCenter nutrition agents and community health professionals.

Healthy living habits are also a big part of monthly 4-H Club meetings, Lucas-Powell said.

This winter, she said, teenage students from East Carroll Parish will attend a Teen Health Advocate Training where they will learn to teach healthy living subjects, and develop leader­ship skills while developing a plan for change.

Adriana Drusini, 4-H agent in St. Mary Parish, has used grants from ConAgra and Wal-Mart to help third- through eighth-grade students at the Chitimacha Tribal School.

Healthy living grants received by Louisiana 4-H in 2015-16 included $150,000 from ConAgra, $55,000 from UnitedHealthCare, $65,000 from Wal-Mart.

Last year, the ConAgra grant provided funding to involve students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Wal- Mart grant obtained this year provides money for healthy living education in Native American communities.

To involve as many students as possible last year, grant funds were used to cover the fees for 41 students to enroll in 4-H. At the monthly 4-H Club meetings, healthy living practices were taught. Students were given samples of the different types of food. For example, several different kinds of milk, from soy milk to almond milk, all were available for sampling.

As a part of the grant requirements, students took some of the ingredients home, such as sweet potatoes, to cook with their families.

4-H agents Betsy Crigler, of Tensas Parish, and Ashley Powell, of Catahoula Parish, joined forces in the northeast corner of Louisiana to address obesity. They formed the TenCat group (from the first syllable of both parishes) made up of teens. TenCat holds cooking workshops to introduce students to spin­ach, kale and spaghetti squash that children might not have at home. Older students are placed in positions of authority and lead the younger ones in activities.

“The younger kids are more likely to listen to them,” Powell said. “Teachers say the kids encourage their parents to actually buy things they’ve tried.”

Grant funding has been essential. “That’s why we’re able to do what we do,” Crigler said.

Bruce Schultz is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

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Brittney Watson, a teen leader from Iberia Parish, left, checks out a smoothie being made in a blender powered by a bicycle during the 4-H Food and Fitness Camp in March 2015 at Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center in Pollock. Laura Elnaggar, of Evangeline Parish, is on the bike. Photo by Olivia McClure

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Teen leader Leneigh Hennigan, of Natchitoches Parish, shows campers how to take their pulse after exercising during the 4-H Food and Fitness Camp in March 2015. Photo by Olivia McClure

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Aubrey Menard, of Iberia Parish; Blair Little, of St. Landry Parish; and Juliana Carbalan, of Jefferson Davis Parish, participate in a stretching activity during the Food and Fitness Camp in March 2015. Photo by Olivia McClure

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