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Jul 29th

U of M Extension teaches healthy eating

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U of M Extension teaches healthy eating

Rita Colchin came to the United States twenty-eight years ago from Ecuador. She was a stay-at-home mom until 1998, when she answered a University of Minnesota Extension ad for a person who spoke Spanish and was familiar with Hispanic cultures.
U of M Nutrition Educator Hellen Keraka speaks with a visitor at a community fair.

Originally published in Source, University of Minnesota Extension's magazine

Rita Colchin came to the United States twenty-eight years ago from Ecuador. She was a stay-at-home mom until 1998, when she answered a University of Minnesota Extension ad for a person who spoke Spanish and was familiar with Hispanic cultures.

Today, Colchin is a nutrition education assistant with Extension's Nutrition Education Programs who works hard to help clients of many cultures eat and live healthfully.

Extension's Nutrition Education Programs serve many audiences, from preschoolers to senior citizens; and take many shapes: classes, social marketing campaigns, seminars for professionals and service providers, newsletters and one-on-one coaching. Visual activities are often the most effective -- for example, using sugar cubes to show the amount of sugar in a bottle of pop or paraffin-filled test tubes to demonstrate the amount of fat in various foods.

Nutrition programs may be found in a wide variety of community settings across Minnesota, including food shelves, WIC clinics, senior centers, child-care centers, charter schools, summer camps, low-income housing and grocery stores.

For more than thirty years, the university has partnered with Minnesota counties to deliver nutrition education for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. The programs touched more than 7,700 families in the metro area during fiscal year 2006.

"I'm often asked why the University of Minnesota is involved with hands-on nutrition education," says Sue Letourneau, Extension nutrition program director. "The answer is simple. We take the most current peer-reviewed research, turn it into effective learning tools, and deliver it in practical ways to the people who need it the most. Extension is in a unique position to do that."

The heart and soul of Extension's programs are the nutrition education assistants (NEAs) who deliver the services. These are not your typical academics; they are Minnesotans -- neighbors helping neighbors -- dedicated to teaching people in their communities about healthy eating and food budget management.

Colchin is especially aware of the challenges for immigrants when it comes to different foods offered in the United States and other countries. For example, most Hispanic, Somali and Hmong refugees have never eaten peanut butter and do not know of its value as a protein. Elsewhere, chocolate, pop and candy are expensive and hard to come by, but they're inexpensive and far more common in the United States. Easy access creates unhealthy weight gain.

Colchin says that her mission is to "encourage folks of Hispanic cultures to fry less, drink less soda and walk more."

Extension's Nutrition Education Programs also have an economic impact. A 2003 Centers for Disease Control study showed that twenty-three percent of adult Minnesotans are obese, and an additional thirty-eight percent are overweight. The burden due to obesity is estimated at $31 billion annually. The good news, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is that for every $1 spent on nutrition education, $10.64 in healthcare costs is saved. Families save $2.68 for every $1 spent -- money that can be put back in the local economy to buy clothes, durable goods and other necessities.

"It's our role to help educate people on how to stretch their food dollars and eat healthy on a limited budget," said Fay McLain, community program specialist. "We're funded by USDA food stamp dollars to help limited income households, and we focus mainly on families with children."

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