More Salads, More Vegetables, and More Whole Grain Bread

Family Community & Resource Center’s CHOICES Series… Shifting Nutrition Habits

“When you enter this room, cooperation is expected,” reads the sign on the classroom wall at the new home of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family & Community Resource Center.  That instruction goes hand in hand with the conversational nature of much of the Center’s programming.  The weekly CHOICES: Steps Toward Health classes are no exception.  The series, presented in partnership with the UMASS Extension Nutrition Education Program (NEP), teaches participants, through discussions and hands-on experiences, how to improve the nutritional quality of the meals they serve their families.  Through small group sessions the award-winning curriculum, offered through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), emphasizes nutrition, food shopping, and food safety while engaging participants in group discussions, cooking demonstrations, food tasting, fun physical activities, and other hands-on learning.  Another pillar of the CHOICES approach is that ALL participants’  backgrounds and experiences are respected and valued.  

Prego vs. Ragu, whole milk vs. skim, white bread vs. wheat…  there is room for comparison(s) at every turn, and in her presentation the instructor, Nutrition Educator Evelin Diaz Pena, makes the most of every opportunity for highlighting simple nutritional edits.  Diaz-Pena credits the program’s learning by dialogue approach with the students’ ability to remain engaged with the content she shares.  “The teaching style is a combination of sharing information, offering visuals and reviewing the content in the materials we distribute.  It’s a little bit of everything.  But, it’s pretty much learning by dialogue.”  And does she assign homework over the course of the series?  “The only thing I ask is that each student set a goal. It’s not worth it that I’m here just talking each week.  I expect the students to make some changes in their nutrition and come back to me each week to share those examples. Things like, one new vegetable that they tried.  I ask of them what they are doing different than before?”

Cost effectiveness studies in a number of states have shown that for every dollar spent on this type of educational programming, $3 to $10 were saved on lower health care costs and increased productivity.  Studies conducted by administrators of  EFNEP illustrate the content’s impact…

Changing Adult Behaviors

At the completion of the program:

  • 95% of participants showed a positive change in consumption for at least one of the food groups.
  • 90% of participants showed improvement in one or more nutrition practices (i.e., plan meals, prepare foods without adding salt, read nutrition labels, or have children eat breakfast).
  • 83% of participants showed improvement in one or more food resource management practices (i.e., plan meals, compare prices, not run out of food, or use grocery lists).
  • 69% of participants showed improvement in one or more food safety practices (i.e., thawing and storing foods properly).
  • 33% of participants reported an increase in physical activity.

Each CHOICES class wraps up with a healthy meal enjoyed by the students family-style.  This component offers participants an opportunity for ongoing conversation, community and again that window for collaboration that is so essential to retaining the content and making forward progress.  “I come here because this is where I live – in Lawrence.  These classes help me in my home.  They help me and my family eat better,” shares a grandmother who is a “regular” with the group.  She takes the valuable material she learns here each week and then shares it with her daughter as they together care for her grandchildren.  “I shop different now.  More salads.  More vegetables,  And more pan (bread)… whole grain bread.” 

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley partners with the Department of Children and Families to provide the Family & Community Resource Center to help families raise children in healthy, stable homes. All services are free and open to all families in Essex County.  To learn more about upcoming programming or other offering at our Family & Community Resource Center, please visit their program page, or call 978-975-8800.

Services Include:

  • Assessment and family support planning.
  • Peer-to-peer support groups for youth, grandparents raising grandchildren, and “Parents Helping Parents”.
  • Life skills workshops for youth, parents and families, such as bullying prevention, financial literacy and behavior management.
  • Cultural, social, recreational, and community service activities, including holiday gatherings, bingo nights, and National Night Out.
  • Information and referral services.
  • English as a Second Language classes.


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