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State Tries to Improve Diet and Exercise Through Faith-Based Organizations

Supporters say organizations’ community ties put them in position to help make real changes.

State officials have begun a small experiment they hope will reap big rewards as they seek ways to improve residents’ dietary and exercise habits. And they’re using an unusual channel to accomplish this: faith-based organizations.

The grant program Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More is providing funding to several faith-based nonprofits, enabling them to offer nutrition classes and exercise programs.

The Hoboken-based Jubilee Center, a nonprofit associated with All Saints Episcopal Parish, has launched a nutrition and cooking class that will last through August and aims to help 100 families improve their eating habits.

Center Executive Director Armstead Johnson said the class would offer parents alternative ideas for meals, with a focus on fresher, less processed foods.

“What we’re talking about are healthy, economical alternatives to what you normally do,” said Armstead, adding that the organization also is encouraging families to schedule regular exercise, like family walks.

The state Department of Health’s Office of Nutrition and Fitness began to engage faith-based organizations at a 2012 conference that was meant to begin a conversation about how religious leaders can play a role in improving the health of their congregants.

The grant program funds lessons in how to limit consumption of sugary drinks; reduce TV and screen time; boost physical activity; eat together as a family; and increase the variety of foods eaten, especially fruits and vegetables.

The grants are targeted toward areas with large minority populations. The obesity rate among all New Jersey adults is 23 percent, while it is 32 percent for black residents and 27 percent for Hispanic residents.

Francis E. Blanco, executive director of Living Hope Empowerment Center in Trenton, said the classes could be duplicated elsewhere if they are successful.

“Faith-based agencies reach almost everyone in our communities,” Blanco said. “They do that either because of the religious, spiritual aspect of it or because they’re a provider or services,” including daycare and afterschool programs.

Blanco said her organization is working with the Concerned Pastors and Ministers of Trenton and Vicinity to promote good health. Many residents find the lessons that come from faith-based groups to be easier to relate to their lives, she said.

“They’re your neighbor, they’re your brother, they’re your sister and because they have that relationship, it’s hits home harder,” Blanco said. “They are ambassadors for this type of message."

"By going through centers of faith," she continued, "you do reach all levels and that’s more effective. If you teach the child how to eat healthy, if you have messages coming in to all different members of the family, it becomes more feasible that the changes become a way of life.”

A crucial part of this message is that these changes are “affordable, accessible, and realistic,” Blanco said. “We don’t have to necessarily drop everything we’re eating but maybe prepare it differently or introduce new items.”

State health policy and strategic planning director Cathleen Bennett said state officials would be tracking whether the program leads to changes in residents’ habits. She said the grants provide a “nontraditional” approach to reaching New Jerseyans.

“There’s been lack of information in a way that’s culturally appropriate,” Bennett said, noting that dietary messages that children hear at school don’t always filter back to their parents.

“There are more things happening at the grassroots level," she added, "and that’s a really good place for it to be, because that’s the place where it’s linguistically and culturally relevant to the people that control food choices and decisions about what you’re eating at your dinner table.”

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