Creative Prevention Programs Build Healthy Attitudes

Sometimes, children cannot help but learn.

“Vegetables can be really good,” believes Preston Sam, one of 19 children who recently enjoyed a cooking class, compliments of the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center.

After two hours of learning proper kitchen techniques, plus dicing, slicing, and flipping, Sam’s new understanding of vegetables wasn’t just about taste.

“You should count your colors,” said Gracie El-Chamas. “The more colors you eat the healthier and better your food is.”

Feedback like this made Kristie Messerli’s heart soar.

A registered dietitian and nutritionist at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center Messerli has been organizing creative programs, like the Nothing To It Cooking Classes, to reshaping food and nutrition attitudes of all the RSTHC patients, with special focus on youth.

DSC_0028“Because our community is faced with high rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, eating habits are very, very important,” Messerli said. “If we can teach our children to make good choices when they are young, it will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle when they are adults.”

With oversight and directions from three adult instructors, the RSTHC kids learned the proper way to maintain a cooking area while preparing food. The instructions emphasized kitchen safety, not just from sharp utensils or hot pots and pans, but the importance of a germ free environment. The students were thoroughly schooled about washing hands and cooking instruments and surfaces.

The students made several items including healthy frozen banana and yogurt snacks, quesadillas, and Sloppy Joes loaded with fresh vegetables.

“I wasn’t very excited about coming because I thought it would be a bunch of little kids,” said Makayla Tom, “But I really had a fun time and now, I am glad my aunt made me come.”

Tom wasn’t the only reluctant participant, however, Messerli has a solution.

Messerli said that involving your children in food shopping and preparing meals will naturally stimulate interest in a healthy lifestyle.

“Take your children to the grocery store,” Messerli said. “This will give you an opportunity to teach your children about nutrition, and provide your kids with a feeling of empowerment and accomplishment.”

Messerli added that kids might be more willing to eat or try foods that they help prepare. Furthermore, the United States Department of Health & Human Services reports that Native American diets and food practices have changed more (for the worse) than any other ethnic group in the United States.

DSC_0041Accordingly, for about the last two hundred years, most aspects of the lifestyles of Great Basin Native Americans have changed including our cooking and eating patterns.

In modern day, although the current diet of Native Americans may vary by tribe, and by personal traits such as age (e.g., young versus old), Native families eat similarly to the rest of the American population. These habits have caused serious health problems throughout Indian County.

The USDA website includes a recent study found that only 10 percent of Native Americans have a healthful diet, while 90 percent have a poor quality that needs improvement. The majority of Native Americans have diets that are too high in fat (62 percent). Only 21 percent eat the recommended amount of fruit on any given day, while 34 percent eat the recommended amount of vegetables, 24 percent eat the recommended amount of grains, and 27 percent consume the recommended amount of dairy products.

More troubling, Native Americans are also four times more likely to report not having enough to eat than other U.S. households according to the National Institute of Health.

For complex reasons, Native Americans have experienced high rates of poverty and unemployment, and families often struggle to put enough food, much less healthy enough food, on their table.

One reason is that healthy and fresh foods tend to be more expensive and are often simply unavailable in low-income and rural communities.

In addition, Indian Health Service reports that American Indian and Alaska Native youth, ages 10 through 19, are nine times more likely as Non-Hispanic White youth to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

In response, two years ago, the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments, urged tribes to invest in positive nutrition education and physical activity habits which will lead to healthier lifestyles.

And that is exactly what is happening at our health center. “All the programs sponsored by the RSTHC Diabetes Program and the 3 Nations Wellness Center—cooking classes, bowling, swimming, walk/runs, Friday Try Days—they are all about building positive attitudes about nutrition and exercise which are essential for healthy lifestyles.

For more information about the healthy offerings at the RSTHC, please phone Kristie Messerli at (775) 329-5162, ext. 1943 or email her at: kmesserli@rsicclinic.org .