Faithful Families program promotes healthy lifestyles

At the Cameron Grove AME Zion Church in Broadway, N.C., church dinners once consisted of fried foods and vegetables seasoned with fat. But things have changed, thanks to the efforts of N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More program and two dedicated church lay leaders, Annie McIver and Sheilneil Feaster.

Faithful Families works with faith communities to teach healthy eating and good physical activity practices. Program associates work hand in hand with lay leaders, who help their members decide what positive changes they want to make for the whole community, as well as for themselves as individuals.

For Cameron Grove Church, changes included new items on the church menu: more baked foods, fresh fruits, seasonal vegetables sauteed or grilled and water to drink. There are fewer desserts. Sunday morning’s honey buns have been replaced by quiche. And children of the congregation enjoy yogurt and applesauce for snacks.

It wasn’t always easy, but McIver and Feaster believe these positive changes will help their members to be healthier. In addition to the nutrition changes, the church is encouraging members to be more physically active by taking advantage of the large church parking lot as a walking space.

As a career nurse, McIver saw the devastating effects of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. She wanted to see her congregation make changes that would impact members’ health in a positive way.

“It took some getting used to,” said Feaster, the church cook, of the menu changes. Church members had some trouble adjusting to new foods at first, but now, she reports, they ask for seconds on some new dishes.

Faithful Families Coordinator David Hall said the partnership between the program and Cameron Grove Church is exactly what Faithful Families strives for. “We’ve seen great success through our lay leaders,” he said. “They can help decide what changes can have the greatest impact on their members.”

The program started in 2007 and is supported in the South Central District by N.C. Cooperative Extension program associate Debbie Stephenson and by Erin Roberts in the North Central District. Stephanie McDonald, South Central District EFNEP Extension associate, also has been involved with Faithful Families since the beginning. The program is a partnership between Cooperative Extension and the N.C. Division of Public Health’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Branch. Funding is provided by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

Faithful Families seeks out faith communities that are interested in improving the health practices of their members. Faithful Families also ensures that the program has the support of the community’s leader. The program has served nine counties in central North Carolina. Faithful Families program associates strive to have 10 faith communities complete the program each year.

The success of the program is directly related to the partnership between program associates and lay leaders, Hall said. The program includes a member health assessment, nine nutrition and physical activity education lessons and adoption of policy and environmental changes for the faith community.

Faithful Families uses the curriculum of the Expanded Foods and Nutrition Education Program. The program associates and the lay leaders share responsibility for teaching the nine EFNEP lessons.

Lay leaders help guide congregations in deciding on policy and environmental changes their faith community will make to help members become healthier. Policy changes could be as simple as offering water as a beverage at church meals. Environmental changes could include Cameron Grove’s initiative of letting members know the walking distance around their parking lots. Some congregations have developed community gardens.

Faithful Families encourages faith communities to make at least one policy change, though congregations may go even further. Congregations are asked to write formal policy changes that their leaders can endorse, explaining how the policy will be carried out, communicated to members and sustained.

In addition, members of Faithful Families communities are encouraged to make personal changes, like becoming more physically active or sharing family meals at home. At Cameron Grove, weight loss was a big motivator for the 17 congregation members who signed on and completed the program, McIver said.

McIver hopes to go further, maybe offering fitness classes at Cameron Grove. She’s noticed other congregation members watching her plate at church gatherings or examining her cart in the grocery store. She thinks the message of healthy eating is starting to take hold. Even the church’s traditional “Soul Food” dinner included some healthier alternatives this year. A bulletin board outside the church kitchen offers information on recipes, food safety and healthy eating.

McIver’s influence has extended beyond her own congregation. At AME Zion church conferences, she brings her message of healthy eating.  Lee County Extension Director Susan Condlin shared with McIver nutrition materials and vials of fat, sugar and salt, representing the amounts found in certain foods to use in demonstrations. McIver believes she’s reached more than 2,000 people at conferences.  She also spoke at the Seventh Annual Pediatric Health Weight Summit at East Carolina University.

Over the next five years, Faithful Families will be part of a study by N.C. State University sociologist Dr. Sarah Bowen. The study, “A Community-Based Approach to Reducing Childhood Obesity in Low-Income Communities: Research to Action,” is supported by a $3 million grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“We will work with community groups in Durham, Harnett and Lee counties in order to understand how community ‘food environments’ affect patterns of childhood obesity. We will track limited-resource families over a 5-year period, asking them about their eating and cooking habits and beliefs,” Bowen said.

Faithful Families lay leaders will participate in the research and will help facilitate community-driven, culturally-appropriate environmental and policy changes that increase access to healthy foods and safe places for physical activity.

—Natalie Hampton

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