But it also is true that for some, there is a big gap between understanding the need to live healthier and actually doing so. This is where important initiatives such as Community Nutrition Education Programs come into play, giving Oklahomans the tools and support they need to make that crucial leap to making positive choices for better health.

“I drink more water,” said Wendy Lester, a former CNEP participant who has maintained several positive habits, including healthier cooking, since completing the program in 2006.

“A lot of those recipes that were shared with me back then, I still use. As a matter of fact, I just made my own recipe book,” she said. “When the [nutrition education assistant] would come over to the house, I would try the recipe that week. If it was something I liked, I’d put it in a book and I still have that book that I pull out and use all the time.”

An alternative education teacher, Lester said some of her students now have an opportunity to participate in CNEP.

“For most students, it’s a little different because they’re not the ones buying food. But, they really enjoy cooking when they do the cooking lessons,” she said.

While a lot of her students do not cook at home or use measuring cups, Lester believes the basic skills taught through CNEP, such as learning how to read a nutrition label, are good for them to know.

“I think they get something different out of it than what I did, but they’re still getting things out of it,” she said.

Through funding partnerships at the federal and state levels with Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension, CNEP is free to families meeting program eligibility requirements, including being at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

The program, which graduated 3,342 adults in 2015, currently operates in 29 Oklahoma counties.

Sunshine Graham, a Tulsa County-based nutrition education assistant for CNEP, said the number one question she fields from clients is related to losing weight.

“What I tell them is ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do or what not to do. What I will do is give you some information that will more than likely lead to weight loss and a healthier body,’” she said.

In fact, that is exactly what CNEP is designed to do – help families establish healthy eating habits and physically active lifestyles using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines.

To accomplish this goal, CNEP nutrition education assistants like Graham travel to individuals’ homes, churches, pre-release facilities, GED classes and other locations, sharing a wide ranging curriculum covering up to 20 lessons on a variety of health related topics.

Working both one-on-one with clients or in groups on a weekly, or sometimes monthly, basis, Graham has seen her participants’ lives change for the better in multiple ways, including being able to be active for longer periods of time, incorporating more vegetables in their diets and making overall healthier food choices.

“The most rewarding part of this job is when I see people changing. I call it the ‘awakening.’ It’s when their eyes kind of gleam over and it’s like that ah-ha moment. That’s what does it for me,” she said.

With its focus on low-income families with small children, youth and seniors, Diana Romano, CNEP assistant state nutrition specialist with an adult focus, said the program helps improve the nutrition of Oklahomans by providing free education to some of the state’s most vulnerable groups.

Recent statistics back up that claim. As a result of participating in the nutrition education program, 88 percent reported improved nutrition practices and 83 percent indicated better food resource management practices.

Also, 57 percent said they have a better grasp on food safety, while 30 percent stated they increased their physical activity by 30 minutes or more as a result of the program. 

“By enrolling in our program, participants increase their ability to stretch their food dollars, start eating healthier, being more active and using more food safety practices,” Romano said. “All of these contribute to better health by helping them avoid running out of food before the end of the month, achieving a healthy weight and reducing the risk of chronic diseases and food borne illness.”

The point about reducing the risk of chronic disease is especially crucial. According to the 2014 State of the State Health Report for Oklahoma, the state carries the nation’s third highest rate of death due to heart disease and fourth highest rate for death due to both stroke and diabetes.

Oklahoma also harbors the next to lowest rate of fruit consumption and the 44th lowest rate of vegetable consumption, and has been tagged as the 44th least physically active state in the nation while maintaining the country’s sixth highest rate of obesity.

“Without question, there is much work to do to improve the health of our state. We as individuals all need to be doing our part to lead a healthy lifestyle,” said Debra Garrard, CNEP state coordinator.

The good news is there is evidence nutrition education programs like CNEP can help individuals and families achieve those aspirational healthy lifestyles. According a 2009 study, the potential health care savings connected with programs similar to CNEP was estimated at $26 million thanks to increased prevention of nutrition related chronic diseases and conditions.

Graham believes CNEP is playing an important role in not only inspiring those “ah-ha” moments, but also building a healthier future for Oklahomans of all ages.

“I heard a saying – don’t let a temporary setback turn into a generational curse,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a secret we’re becoming more overweight and health issues are causing various implications. If even a fraction of the people I saw last year make a change, they’re changing the rest of their family tree. The effort I’m putting in today, they may not go instantly to eating whole grains or being active for a half hour, but they’ve at least planted that seed.”

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