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.”


Spicing Up Healthy Living: Promoting Healthy Lifestyles through Latin Dance

In an old, brick-walled gym flooded with morning sunlight, dozens of women sporting colorful workout clothes were breaking a sweat in Miguel Murillo’s Latin dance class.

Following his lead, the women danced the Salsa, Mambo and Cha-Cha, mixed with Zumba and other hip-hop moves, as drum beats pulsed through the speaker system.

Hosted by the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center in Chicago Heights, the women, ranging in age from early-20s to 60s, meet three days a week to exercise to improve their health, address potential or existing health conditions, and promote healthy lifestyles for their families.

For more than 100 years, the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner, has worked to strengthen family ties and answer community needs, including creating an environment for children and families to learn and succeed.

In past years, families in the area began asking for opportunities to get healthy. In response, one year ago, the center began offering the dance class for women   who were eager to exercise and relieve stress. It’s been spicing up the lives of residents ever since.

Preventing, responding to health conditions

In a city where nearly 30 percent of residents are obese, many communities of color and those in poverty fare the worst.  

Children in Chicago have higher overweight and obesity prevalence rates than children across the U.S. in the same age groups. In fact, nearly 30 percent of Chicago 6th graders are obese, and the obesity rates in these children were highest among black and Hispanic communities.

Leadership at the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center hopes to change that narrative by expanding the opportunities available to its residents in Chicago Heights, a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, and surrounding communities. They recognize that to promote healthy lifestyles for children, they must promote healthy lifestyles for the entire family.

“In low income areas, we find there’s high obesity rates. We struggle with eating healthy and exercising. [The dance class] is a way to offer an opportunity to those in the community,” said Mark Goesel, program director for the community center. 

In its short tenure, the class has already made a lasting difference in the lives of women like Maria Lopez*, a local Latina woman who reported weight issues and a poor diet.

Last year, Maria was told by her doctor that she was at risk of acquiring Type II Diabetes. When she received that warning, she knew she had to make a change.

Maria, who regularly brought her kids to the Jones Center’s youth programs, expressed an interest in developing a healthier lifestyle to the center’s Assistant Director Juana Morales. In turn, Juana connected Maria to the center’s new Latin Dance class.

Maria discovered she really enjoyed the workouts, as well as the camaraderie of being with other women from the community. Since it didn’t feel like exercise, Maria hardly missed a class.

In addition to being overweight, she admitted that her diet was low in fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins, so she supplemented her new workouts with nutrition classes offered at the Jones Center through the University of Illinois Extension programs. There, she learned the basics of clean eating and substituting snack foods and soda with fruits and vegetables.

After eight months of participating in the Latin dance and nutrition classes, Maria lost 36 pounds and reported that her energy level was much higher. At her next doctor’s visit, her fasting blood sugar finally fell in the normal range.  

Open to all

Unlike a pricey gym membership, the Jones Center classes, held from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays, are free to the public. For many parents, that is a welcome relief.

The women are also encouraged to bring their infants and toddlers along if they cannot afford a babysitter, further lessening their financial burden and removing barriers to participating. 

“Money doesn’t have to stop you from being healthy,” said Cecilia Sotelo, who drives 30 minutes from her home in Harvey to participate in the class. She lets others in her community know about the program, too.

“We’ve been bringing a lot of friends and passing along the information. If they want, they can be healthy and it’s free,” Cecilia said. 

Promoting family health

In addition to giving their parents an opportunity to work out, the children’s attendance at the class also exposes them to healthy lifestyles. By watching their mothers routinely prioritize and engage in fun, energetic exercise, the center hopes the children will adapt their own positive exercise habits.

“They bring their kids and the little ones are seeing their parents doing exercise and it encourages them to follow their steps,” Juana said. “We have mothers and daughters who are coming together to exercise, too.”

At United Way of Metro Chicago, we are committed to improving the lives of children and families through robust health initiatives lead by community partners who prioritize healthy lifestyles for the entire family, like the Harold Colbert Jones Memorial Community Center.

 Because when families are healthier, communities, like Chicago Heights, can thrive.