September 28, 2010

Planting the seeds for a healthy future

Gardening program teaches kids about nutrition

By Susie Strachan

Kids and dirt go together like french fries and ketchup. But getting kids to eat tomatoes and boiled potatoes is a whole other row of beans.

They definitely know what they like, and don't like, when it comes to eating their veggies. But what kind of life is it when kids have never eaten a tomato from the vine and think carrots come from a bag in the grocery store? It's one where they've disconnected from where vegetables are grown, and in turn, are often leads to them eating food that isn't healthy or nutritious.

Further Reading
What is CDPI?
Profile of Point Douglas
CDPI in Seven Oaks
Photo Gallery

A garden project in Point Douglas this past summer sought to change all that. It got kids out in the garden, while sneaking in a weekly serving of physical activity, nutritious eating and other healthy benefits, all designed to fight the occurrence of chronic disease.

The garden project was hosted by the William Whyte Residents Association and funded by the Winnipeg Health Region's Chronic Disease Prevention Initiative (CDPI).

The mission of CDPI is to reduce the number of people in Manitoba who become ill or die from chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, heart disease and stroke, kidney and lung disease. Six out of ten Canadians are living with at least one chronic disease, and chronic diseases are the leading causes of death in Canada.

Over the last five years, more than 200 groups have received approval through the CDPI for a variety of projects to help improve nutrition, physical activity reduce tobacco use.

"Our goal is to plant the seeds and create a legacy that will be sustained by the communities," says Vince Sansregret, Community Facilitator for the CDPI program in Point Douglas. "It's all done at a community level, with the community deciding how they want to spend the money."

Annette Champion-Taylor is the Volunteer and Program Coordinator with the William Whyte Residents' Association (WWRA). She says the program helped the neighbourhood - which is bounded by Selkirk Avenue to the north, Redwood Avenue to the south, Arlington Street to the west and Main Street on the east.

"Programs like our community gardens give people a sense of belonging, and help them realize there is something of great value to be had here; a chance to help each other, and to get along," she says.

The WWRA maintains five community gardens located in former vacant lots, including the one at 392 Pritchard Ave., home to the gardens grown by the kids in the program.

The William Whyte area has welcomed approximately 100 families from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Karen State in Burma, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Philippines, Ukraine, Rwanda, Turkey, China and Ethiopia since Oct. 2007. Of these, around 15 families used the community gardens to grow produce for themselves this summer. Over 25 per cent of the neighbourhood is made up of First Nations people (see sidebar).

Point Douglas area residents have many health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, communicable diseases, diabetes, mental health, infant-maternal health and respiratory illness. Diabetes and cardiovascular health problems abound. So do teen pregnancies, along with high rates of communicable diseases, suicides and assaults.

The CDPI funding for the William Whyte kids' gardening program was a mere $700 this year, which covered the cost of hiring a summer student who worked with the kids in the garden.

Fulfilling the three pillars of the program - nutrition, physical activity and smoking reduction - seemed a lot to ask for the money being made available. But children's garden coordinator Natasha Halayda managed to sneak the lessons in, much the same way a cook sneaks zucchini onto the menu, by baking it in carrot cake.

Even the youngest kids don't think twice about walking from Pritchard Park to the garden, on garden club afternoons held twice a week. In the spring, they happily dug, planted seeds and pulled weeds in both blue box planters and in large, wood-sided raised beds. In the summer, they hauled water from the water barrel to keep their plants thriving.

"The kids love the little gloves they get to wear. They love digging," says Halayda, who lives in Point Douglas and attends the University of Manitoba. "They don't understand they're doing physical work. We had a water balloon day, and the kids were all excited, and running around with buckets and balloons, and water was going everywhere. It got the plants watered, too!"

So, while she didn't talk about fighting diabetes, childhood obesity and or refined motor skills in children, it all came into play while the kids are playing. Instead, she talked about the connection between what is growing in the garden and healthy nutrition. The kids learned about the food cycle by helping take care of red wiggler worms in a vermicomposter. They also helped with turning the compost bins in their garden. Halayda led an art project to make signs for each of the plants in the kids' garden, and she talked about vandalism while the kids were making a spray painted banner for their garden, complete with their little hand prints.

"A lot of the kids have never tasted a carrot right out of the garden, with the roots and mud on them. This year, they've tasted rhubarb, seen how peas come out of a pod, and tried tomatoes," she says. "Vegetables are a hard sell as a nutritious snack. But we talk about seeds, and how things like almonds and sunflowers are seeds and are good for you. The kids take the ideas home, and we're hoping their parents will become more involved in changing their diet to a more nutritious one."

Not many of the kids liked tomatoes while on a tasting trip to the garden in August. But they learned that one of their favourite "food groups" - ketchup - is made from tomatoes. French fries are made from potatoes, which are grown underground - another surprise for London, age 9.

"I like the smell of the mint plant the best. Mint is what's in ice cream. It smells better than chives or leaves on the tomatoes," he says. He also didn't believe you can eat the petals from a marigold flower, although he knew that marigolds "guard" the tomato plants, somehow.

Katlyn, age 7, says her favourite plant in the garden is the sunflower, because it grew from a tiny seed and was so tall. "I like to collect things from the garden. It's fun to collect seeds, because you can grow things from seeds. The tomatoes have seeds inside. Those funny-looking onions have seeds. The peas are seeds inside a pod," she says, showing off a handful of seeds pulled from her pocket. "I'd like to take thousands of tomatoes from here. We'd eat them for dinner."

The William Whyte kids weren't the only ones enjoying the benefits of being part of the Chronic Disease Prevention Initiative. Each year, 40 to 50 community groups receive funding in Point Douglas. Some of the funding goes to leadership training, food handling courses, enhanced nutrition and menu planning skills. Other groups get money for providing healthy snacks, or to fund an instructor to teach yoga.

"The idea is to train people in the community, to teach them skills they can use to help with employment and to reduce poverty," says Sansregret. "From a socio-economic stand-point, most of the population here has limited access to health and wellness programs, and limited ability to get to where those programs are being offered."

The CDPI funds community organizations such as Aboriginal Visioning on Selkirk Avenue. Here, CDPI funding helps women enhance their cooking skills, with nutrition tips and how to effectively shop with limited finances. In the past, Aboriginal Visioning has received money to set up a walking and fitness program.

"Really, the cooking is secondary to giving the women a place to work together, a place to network," he says.

Another group which received funding is Micah House, which runs programming for adults with mental illnesses. The CDPI money supports an activity afternoon, by helping Micah House provide healthy snacks. The Robertson School before-and-after day care also received money for nutritious snacks for their kids.

Smoking cessation has been a challenge. For many people in Point Douglas, tobacco is sacred. For others, it's entrenched in their lifestyle.

"We ask the groups to focus on physical activity and healthy eating, and incrementally introduce tobacco reduction. Often, that's done by example, rather than using something like the Commit to Quit training," says Sansregret.

People in the community have access to health professionals working in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, like nutritionists, primary care, community mental health, diabetes, healthy aging resources and the In Motion team. Nutritionists work with community groups to design healthy menus that are culture-specific.

"First Nations groups have food that is traditional to their culture, such as bannock, corn and bison. A nutritionist might talk to a group about using whole wheat flour instead of white flour when making bannock, and offer other ways to modify ingredients. They'd talk about cooking food at home, rather than buying fast food or chips and frozen pizzas from the store," says Sansregret.

When it comes to promoting physical activity, the CDPI program doesn't offer gym memberships, but rather introduces an activity such as walking as a group. Safety is an issue in Point Douglas, more so than the weight loss and fitness goal of a walking program.

"We might promote a Walking School Bus, where parents take turns walking a group of children to school together. We'd provide a grant for safety gear such as fluorescent clothing for the leaders, and also money for the leaders, because it's hard for them to take time away to volunteer. This activity promotes safety in the community and physical activity," says Sansregret.

What is CDPI?

CDPI was a five-year demonstration project jointly funded by Manitoba Health and Healthy Living and the Public Health Agency of Canada to March 2010. CDPI is implemented in 10 Regional Health Authorities in Manitoba involving 83 communities including 21 First Nation and 7 Métis communities. Approximately 330,000 Manitobans are being reached through CDPI. Manitoba Health is continuing to fund the program.

The goals of the CDPI are to:

  • Provide a community-led approach to prevention of the major chronic diseases in Manitoba;

  • Implement a sustainable initiative that emphasizes partnerships;

  • Integrate CDPI into existing programs to make them even more effective; and

  • Enhance the ability of communities to address inequalities in health status.

CDPI projects are:

  • Grassroots: Community members identify, initiate and lead projects.

  • Evidence-informed: Evidence is used to plan and design each project and to measure its effectiveness.

  • Integrated: CDPI aligns and blends with existing programs to add value and enhance their reach.

  • Focused: Projects target priorities or disadvantaged populations as identified by communities.

  • Sustainable: Strong partnerships and community ownership promote lasting effects.

Profile of Point Douglas

Point Douglas is bounded by Carruthers and Matheson avenues on the north, the Red River to the east, the CPR line on the south, and McPhillips Avenue and Fife Street on the west. The area includes historic Selkirk Avenue, home to many thousands of immigrants over the years and storied North Point Douglas, the bend in the Red River which once was a fashionable district, home to many of Winnipeg's founding families, such as the Ashdowns and Logans. It also includes Main Street and the Disraeli Freeway.

By 1906, huge numbers of immigrant families were moving in, forming communities, building schools and churches. Point Douglas became populated by various immigrant populations, including Jews, Ukrainians, Germans and Scandinavians.

In Point Douglas today, over 25 per cent of the population is First Nations, with the rest made up by Canadians, along with many from the Philippines, Vietnam, Ukraine and Poland. Nearly 40 per cent of those in North Point Douglas - the area bounded by a U-shaped bend in the Red River, to the south of the Redwood Bridge and east of the Disraeli Freeway - identify themselves as Metis or aboriginal, compared to just eight per cent in Winnipeg.

The area is also home to some of the poorest families in Winnipeg. Three-quarters of the households in the neighbourhood have an annual income of less than $40,000 - much lower than the average household income in Winnipeg generally, which is about $53,000. The median income for women is around $15,000, while men earn slightly more at $18,000.

CDPI in Seven Oaks

The Chronic Disease Prevention Initiative also runs in Winnipeg's Seven Oaks area, where $20,000 in funding goes to half a dozen programs which are working to improve long-term health by promoting physical activity, nutrition education and smoking cessation.

Community facilitator Kim Bailey says Seven Oaks is a mix of inner city and suburban neighbourhoods. There is a large population of newcomers from the Philippines and Indo-Chinese countries living in the Maples area, which are a good example of their targeted audience.

"We have neighbourhood immigrant support workers who are telling us that affordable housing is hard to find for the immigrant population, which leads to people being transient, living in sub-standard housing or moving to other areas of the city, like St. Vital," says Bailey. "There aren't many social services, such as immigration support, in this neighbourhood either. People have to go downtown for many of the supports."

The Chronic Disease Prevention Initiative is working with the Seven Oaks School Division and other community groups to take up the slack in terms of social services and programs. As such, half of the CDPI money pays for physical activity programs and nutrition education taught in the schools and other community places, including:

  • The school division keeps the Elwick Community School and Ecole Leila North School open after hours, allowing families to use the gym and community kitchen. A site coordinator and a couple of activity workers run a skating program in the winter, and a nutritionist works with families on making healthy snacks and recipes.

  • Seven Oaks Seniors Links is an organization whose goal is to keep seniors active and engaged in the community. They train, support and motivate older adults to lead and participate in senior-led walking groups (Steppin' Out) and senior-led exercise classes (Steppin' Up). The CDPI grant pays for healthy snacks and some equipment such as weights.

  • Seven Oaks School Division runs a middle years camp called My Camp. The CDPI pays a subsidy for low-income families whose children could not otherwise afford to attend.

  • Bright Futures is a community-based mentorship and outreach program that aims to provide that chance to high school aged students living in Winnipeg's Elwick and Watson Street neighbourhoods. The program runs a community kitchen to provide students with food at the end of the school day, which is supported by CDPI.

  • A breakfast program at Edmund Partridge School receives funding. The school also functions as a community kitchen to teach families to prepare and cook healthy meals.

The CDPI will be taking proposals from the Seven Oaks community in the area of capacity building. Funding will be given out to do things like teach people how to be coaches or to train young adults in child minding.

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