Cooking & Conversations: Health Promoters Host Nutrition Chats

Lilia Lopez, a class attendee, mixes up the fruit and yogurt parfaits.

In a small classroom in Little Village, Gloria Hernandez passed around recipes to a handful of women clad in hairnets and aprons. On this December morning, parfait de fruta y yogurt, or fruit and yogurt parfaits, were on the menu.

As the women peeled and chopped bananas, strawberries, apples and papayas, Gloria guided the culinary lesson. One of about 18 volunteers, Gloria works as a health promoter for Erie Neighborhood House’s Comprando Rico y Sano program.

Hosting charlas, or small educational classes, Gloria and her peers teach Chicago residents how to improve their health and the health of their families through cooking demonstrations, educational presentations and other family-friendly activities.

“I love it. I love how it makes people feel,” Gloria said of her teaching.

Hands-On Health Charlas

A partner of United Way of Metro Chicago, Erie Neighborhood House strives to serve entire families’ needs, from nurturing children’s development to empowering adults to build stronger communities. Through its nutrition program, Comprando Rico y Sano, volunteer health promoters address the foundation for families’ success – their physical health.

Gloria, a West Town resident, began volunteering as a health promoter with the program two years ago. Like some of her fellow volunteers, she hoped the program would help her develop healthy eating habits she could pass along to her family.

“The ones that join the group, each of them has a different story and different reason to be there. And once they start learning, that empowers them, and they want to go out to the community and share their stories,” Elva Serna, a community engagement specialist at Erie Neighborhood House, said of the health promoters. She manages the program, hosts charlas and trains Gloria and the other volunteers.

The group of women chop up fruit for their yogurt parfait breakfast.

“[Health promoters] are not different from the community,” Elva added. We have different issues and we are struggling with different things. But we tell [residents] ‘If we’re working together, we’re not alone.’ And that can help them to change their eating habits.”

To educate their neighbors, the health promoters bring the charlas, which typically include a cooking and nutrition lesson, directly to groups of 10 to 100 community members. Sometimes, they host chats for groups of students at a school. On other occasions, they teach parents at a church or senior citizens at their residential home.

The health promoters create pop-up kitchens for the group to test out new recipes using ingredients they likely already have at home, like cauliflower ceviche, pepilocos and chickpea salad. Erie Neighborhood House provides all the necessary ingredients for the demos, as well as kitchen tools and portable appliances, like stovetops, blenders and toasters, to make each dish.

The health promoters sometimes take the lesson into neighborhood supermarkets, where they teach parents and families how to plan and find quick, healthy meals on a tight budget.

“We’re trying to empower them and give them the right information and options, so they can be more healthy,” Elva said. “We want them to learn and to create anchors for memories — like you have from your childhood — related to food.”

Lifestyle Lessons

Gloria presents the nutrition lesson to English-language learners at Erie Neighborhood House’s Little Village location.

Once their meals are complete, the community members  snack on their treat as the health promoters present the nutrition lesson.

On this December day, Gloria hosted the final charla in a three-part series for English-language learners at Erie Neighborhood House’s Little Village location. The group of mostly 20-to-40-year-old women learned about portion sizes, the health benefits of the five food groups, how to read nutrition labels and what are healthy alternatives for their favorite comfort foods.

Gloria encourages the community members in her classes to make the new dishes for their families, especially their children who are beginning to develop their food habits.

These tips could be particularly beneficial to the youth who call the southwest neighborhood of Little Village home. Exasperated by high poverty rates and limited access to healthy and affordable foods, 32 percent of Little Village kindergartners, 6th-graders and 9th-graders are obese — the highest rate for any area in the Chicago region.

In response, the health promoters volunteering with the Comprando Rico y Sano program have committed to making a difference in the lives of residents, like Lilia Lopez. At the close of class, she proudly boasted about making the cauliflower ceviche for her family, a new favorite among them.

“For me, the nutrition class is very important,” Lilia said. “Now, I know how to choose the right products. This way, I’m helping my family by making more nutritious and healthy choices.”