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Community in Transition

Roseland cooks up a healthier lifestyle

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Lack of transportation and financial resources bind many residents to their neighborhood, says Peterson. Some kids have never traveled to Howarth Park or Spring Lake, only a few miles away. Families are therefore dependent on the local schools, markets, streets and parks to provide exercise, education, nourishment and entertainment. But, as Portrait of Sonoma County points out, Roseland lacks open space and parks. In other words, the "built environment," as public health officials define it, has everything to do with the health of a community.

Peterson points to Bayer Farm, a six-acre community farm and neighborhood park just a block from Sheppard Elementary, as one of the great HEAL zone successes. Built in a collaboration between Landpaths and Santa Rosa Parks and Recreation Department, the farm offers gardening and cooking classes and the opportunity grow organic foods.

"We can make systemic changes in the neighborhood," says Peterson, emphasizing the long-term goals of HEAL.

The biggest shifts in nutrition and exercise have occurred in the elementary schools, the target of the first phase of HEAL. Concerns rose when a 2010–11 sampling of 266 kindergarten, second- and fifth-grade students at Roseland and Sheppard Elementary revealed that 34 percent of the students were obese and 25 percent overweight. Thirty-nine percent of the students were at a healthy weight.

In response, the school district contracted with Oakland-based Revolution Foods to be the new lunch provider. The school meal service provides lunches made from whole, non-GMO, organic and, when possible, local ingredients. Every meal comes with a fruit and a vegetable.

"It was a big change for our students," says Alicia Vega, the district's food manager. The first year, kids refused to eat the food. Most of the organic Granny Smith apples ended up in the trash.

But participation has improved dramatically since then, says Vega. The next step was getting kids to eat in the morning. Before the roll-out of what's called "universal breakfast," just 6 percent of the students were eating breakfast at school. Now, with milk, cereal, hard-boiled eggs and fruit brought to classrooms by "breakfast ambassadors," about 96 percent of kids are eating a nutritious breakfast district-wide, says Vega. Other changes include the "Yummy Curriculum" taught by nursing students from Sonoma State University.

A program called "Harvest of the Month" is one of the biggest hits. Once a month, each elementary classroom receives a delivery of fresh fruits or vegetables from local farms like Bloomfield Organics in Valley Ford and Stony Point Strawberries in Petaluma. The kit contains enough of that month's selection, of say, strawberries, kale, cabbage or multicolored carrots for 32 kids to taste. It's rounded out with farmer profiles, a nutritional and historical factsheet and a newsletter for the parents. Harvest literature and recipes are also posted in local markets, part of a HEAL zone's Healthy Food Outlet.

Developed by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), the harvest kits are subsidized and given out free to schools where more than 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Roseland, more than 90 percent of the students qualify.

"The kids in Roseland have the greatest health risks by far having to do with where they live," says Heather Granahan, regional food systems manager for CAFF's North Coast office. "Schools have a huge role in establishing eating habits with kids. According to research scientists at Kaiser, it's key that kids have peer-support for eating healthier foods."

If student response to the kits is a clue, then the peer support is happening.

NO MORE TATER TOTS Hortencia Garcia, food service manager at Roseland Elementary, prepares fresh produce for students. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • NO MORE TATER TOTS Hortencia Garcia, food service manager at Roseland Elementary, prepares fresh produce for students.

"We've had kids fighting over the leftover kale," says Granahan. "We've had reports from parents about students asking for better food at their house. We're trying to have a ripple effect here."

Physical activity on campuses has increased with "active recess," where a trained coach runs kids through fun, gender-neutral games like celebrity tag to get them moving. The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition sponsors a walking school bus and family bicycle workshops. Plus, instructors like Garret Cuneo, who teaches fourth grade at Roseland Elementary, are doing their part. Cuneo's class does a 30-minute workout routine in the morning before class starts.

"There's a very tangible difference in their attitudes and performance after the workout," Cuneo says via email. "They're more alert and responsive."

The data isn't yet clear, but preliminary 2012–13 body-mass measurements at Roseland elementary show a decrease in obese and overweight students. But it's not possible to form absolute conclusions from the data yet because of differences in sample sizes and methodology.

What is clear is that kids like Jesus and Daisy Sarmiento are benefiting in two ways: they get good nutrition at school, along with chances for exercise; and at home, their mom Alejandra Sarmiento reinforces the knowledge by modeling healthy living herself.

Some parents have not gotten on board. Hortencia Garcia manages the kitchen at Roseland elementary. She says she still sometimes sees people buying lard-laden tamales for breakfast, for their kids and for themselves, from mobile food vendors parked just outside the school limits. A county ordinance passed in 2009 prohibits vending within 500 foot of any school property, but it's been difficult to enforce the rule. And the vendors keep coming.

But go to a Zumba class at Roseland elementary and you'll see the success stories. One woman's depression is gone. Another has lower insulin levels. And many of the women have dropped a few pounds.

You'll see that Alejandra Sarmiento has become a community leader. Recently, she was recruited for a five-day neighborhood leadership training class through St. Joseph's. Sarmiento got a crash course in social justice, community organizing and outreach. She learned about the relationship between governmental policy and the health of communities and strategic planning. She's excited to go to neighborhood stores as a Healthy Food Project representative, where, for a stipend, she'll promote marketing and product-placement.

Sarmiento says the training, the nutrition classes and, yes, even the Zumba sessions, have given her a voice.

"I didn't feel empowered before," she says. "I felt embarrassed and unsure of myself. But now I feel able to make change."

This article was produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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