All it takes is a few courageous souls—or one gutsy kid—stepping forward to change the attitudes of a whole community. At least that’s what Danielle DeLong has found when it comes to getting school children to eat vegetables and other healthy foods.
DeLong, Ho-Chunk, a cultural specialist and mino aanji bimaadiziwin (good changes for life) diabetes prevention instructor for St. Paul Public Schools, works to help reduce diabetes and obesity in Native children. She describes the first time she introduced students to the grain quinoa in a tomato salad.
The students had never even heard of quinoa, let alone tried it, but they knew one thing for sure just by looking: “I don’t like it.”
“Try it,” encouraged DeLong, and finally one stouthearted student did.
“After one student tried it—‘Ah, it is good!’—then another student had to verify it,” chuckles DeLong about her recent converts toward healthy eating.
Spreading healthy eating skills and ideas from a few courageous souls to entire Native communities is the goal behind a series of cooking classes beginning in February through the Dream of Wild Health (DWH) program. DeLong, the mother of three elementary-age children, already has signed up—and has done other cooking courses and gardening programs in the past with Dream of Wild Health.
The classes help her to feel confident about her cooking skills and food choices. “I’m really great at cooking traditional foods, but I’m still practicing my own cooking skills. I do have fun, especially when I involve my kids.”
Dream of Wild Health’s new “Cooking Program” grew from a three-year, $150,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation grant in its “Growing Up Healthy: Kids and Communities program.” The program, which offers two six-week sessions for parents and educators, will focus on “nutrition, eating locally grown, indigenous foods, traditional recipes,” according to Dream of Wild Health’s announcement. DWH is a Native-run organization located on a 10-acre organic farm not far from St. Paul that offers educational programs for adults and young people that teach about traditional agriculture, healthy cooking and nutrition, and Native culture.
DeLong has been involved with DWH for a while, shopping at the farmer’s market it brings to Minneapolis and St. Paul and working in the community gardens started by the program. She loves regularly tending the garden with her children, joking around and cooling off with the hose on hot days, and seeing their excitement as the seeds they planted turn into edible produce. Interacting with the plants and knowing how the food grew makes them interested in eating the results.
“One of the best experiences for me was just to see when my kids recognized the carrots,” DeLong recalled. “When they pulled it out of the dirt, my son said, ‘It is a carrot!’ and he bit it. He wanted to taste the carrot: ‘It’s good; it’s a carrot; it’s really good.’ He spread the excitement to the other kids who were there.”
The first of the new DWH cooking classes began February 12 in the Harding High School in St. Paul, and the participants are parents with children younger than 5, and pregnant teenagers. DWH’s nutrition educator and registered dietician Cassandra Silveira, who will teach the classes, will show how healthy ways to prepare a variety of foods, teach how best to shop for groceries, how to read food labels and how to engage children in the making of meals.
“The first vegetable that [many] children in this country eat is a fast-food French fry. That is just appalling to me,” Silveira said. “I don’t mean to villainize anything; that’s not what I’m trying to do. We’re designed to crave sweets, just genetically. I don’t want to be anybody’s food police. Things in moderation are okay.”
“I also want to teach cooking strategies which can make cooking a entire meal seem not so time consuming,” she added, “it’s good to have other food strategies,” which is what she teaches. “Fast food for me is cooking up an entire pot of brown rice and freezing it. Then I can pop it into the microwave, and it’s at least part of the meal.”
The numbers show the need for new food habits for children in Indian country. In 2008, the Indian Health Service (IHS) reported that up to 39 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native children ages 2 to 19 were overweight or obese. That is more than double the 15 percent rate for U.S. children of all races.
Childhood obesity robs children of healthy futures. One study reveals that obese children from ages 5 to 10 already showed at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor, such as elevated total cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin or blood pressure, and 25 percent had two or more cardiovascular disease risk factors, according to the 2008 IHS report “Promoting a Healthy Weight in Children and Youth Clinical Strategies.”
“The overweight epidemic among children may also reduce overall adult life expectancy because it increases lifetime risk for type 2 diabetes and other serious chronic disease conditions,” the report stated. “This epidemic has the potential to reverse gains that have been achieved in reducing mortality rates in the past century. As a result, this may be the first generation of Americans to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
These kinds of statistics are part of what motivated the Blue Cross Blue Shield foundation to support the DWH cooking program, said Jocelyn Ancheta, a foundation senior program officer. The foundation has used another set of statistics—the county health rankings published by the University of Wisconsin—to target its grants. The rankings, done for virtually every county in the United States, show Minnesota reservation areas are especially at risk, she said.
“This project is really targeting low-income communities and poor early childhood outcomes,” said Ancheta of the foundation’s “Growing Up Healthy” initiative.
Rather than simply changing the healthy eating patterns of a few cooking class participants, the foundation hopes the program spreads skills and ideas.
“The idea that we really have is looking at shifting community conditions, not individual health outcomes,” Ancheta said. Dream of Wild Health “really is one we chose because of the way that they talked about the importance of the connection to the earth, with the cultural identity, which has a lot to do with health.”
Teaching about food traditions will be part of the cooking program, said Sammie Ardito Rivera, Leech Lake Ojibwe, DWH outreach and education coordinator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean serving up wild rice, moose meat and berries. Native food traditions have as much to do with understanding foods and where they come from as they do about specific foods.
“It is traditional in that she is focusing on meals that are made up of seasonal and whole foods,” Sammie said of Silveira’s cooking classes. “By whole foods we mean unprocessed, something your grandmother would recognize. She will also be incorporating traditional regional ingredients when available, but also recognizes for lower-income community members things like wild rice and buffalo may not be accessible in their regular diet.
“I would say that this perspective on cooking is more in tune with our traditional Indigenous values as opposed to most modern American [and American Indian] diets of processed convenience foods. We have lost our connection to food, not just Native people, but all people. Food should nourish us and connect us to where we are and who we are. You are not going to get that in a McDonald's meal.”
So much of the research shows if you can impact a child’s life before 5 years old, it sets a good foundation for health,” said Diane Wilson, executive director of DWH. “When you get a chance to learn new skills besides frying, ways to use less meat or less fat, how to incorporate healthier ingredients, then you can have a real impact on your family.”
Wilson, Dakota, as with many in DWH, has personally seen the cost of bad habits and bad health. “We grew up with Midwestern eating habits—a slab of meat, starch, vegetable, a desert, bread,” she said. Five of the seven members of her family have had diabetes. “It’s a personal mission as well as a community-based mission. … I’ve had to watch my family members suffer from it. We have to really change our diets and live healthy; we don’t have to have this high level of diabetes.”
Working for a change that will so touch people’s lives energizes Silveira, especially the opportunity to work with pregnant teenagers.
“Some of them may not know how to cook. To me, this is one of the best times to reach them. Let’s do it healthy from the beginning,” she said. “We’ll be reaching a generation that hasn’t yet been born, and maybe this will be the one that’s going to turn the tide on this whole obesity epidemic.”
Find out how your county fares in health rankings. The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, cover all 50 states at www.countyhealthrankings.org. The Counties are ranked based on such health measures as the rate of people dying before age 75, high school graduation rates, access to healthier foods, air pollution levels, income and rates of smoking, obesity and teen births.
Promoting Healthy Weight in Children
• Limit juice and other sugar sweetened drinks to no more than 4 ounces daily (2-4 ounces for toddlers), or less than one small cup per day.
• Replace one can of soda with water every day, with the goal of eventually replacing all soda with water.
• Encourage water as the only in-between meal drink.
• Eat five (5) servings or helpings of fruits and vegetables a day. (For children, a serving equals 1 tablespoon of fruit or vegetable per year of age. Six tablespoons is a serving for anyone 6 and older.)
• Avoid using food as a reward for good behavior.
• Eat meals together as a family as much as possible.
• Discourage TV viewing during mealtimes.
• Learn about calorie and fat content of foods consumed.
• Play or get active every day, at least 30-60 minutes every day.
• Reduce TV and screen time (e.g. video games, computers) to no more than two hours every day.
• Avoid putting TVs in children’s bedrooms.
• Follow the “5-2-1-0” model. Make sure to do the following every day:
5: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
2: Limit TV and other screen time to no more than two hours a day.
1: Engage in one hour of physical activity.
0: Limit sugar-sweetened beverages; none is best.
Source: Indian Health Services 2008 report
Cassandra Silveira’s Tips for Healthy Grocery Shopping:
• Do not grocery shop when hungry.
• Make a list of what to buy. It will be easier to remember and you may be less tempted to stray from it.
• Try to buy what’s local and what’s in season. Try to buy what’s local and what’s in season. Frozen is an acceptable substitute, as is canned – just rinse first.
• Read labels as much as possible. Try to buy food that has as few ingredients as possible. Limit purchase of processed foods where sugar, high fructose corn syrup or another sweetener is one of its first five ingredients.
Recipes Even Kids Love (From Dream of Wild Health)
Sloppy Joes on Wheat Buns (serves 6)
1 lb. ground venison (or lean ground turkey)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small green pepper, chopped
1/2 cup prepared barbeque sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tsp mustard
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcesteshire
1 Tbsp honey/maple syrup
1 Tbsp olive oil
6 whole wheat hamburger buns
1. Heat oil in large skillet. Add chopped onions, garlic and pepper and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add ground meat and cook till no longer pink. Carefully drain off excess fat. In a separate bowl, mix together barbeque, ketchup, mustard, vinegar, worcesteshire and maple syrup.
2. Stir mixture into cooked meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Serve with hamburger buns.
Sweet Potato Fries—Kids LOVE 'em!
5 Sweet potatoes, cut into thin “fries”
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400° F. Place the sweet potato “fries” on a foil-lined baking sheet and toss with the olive oil. Bake until golden, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the basil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. When the fries come out over the oven, sprinkle with the basil salt.
1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup low-fat milk
1/2 cup juice (orange or your choice)
2 cups frozen fruit (your choice – you can use berries, pineapple, mango, be creative!)
1. Place ingredients in a blender and process till smooth.
2. Pour into a tall glass and serve.
Black Bean Bread
(yield 32 slices)
adapted from Foodnetwork.com
2 cups lukewarm milk
2 packages yeast
2 cups black beans, mashed
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons shortening, melted
5 -6 cups flour
Combine the milk, beans, sugar, salt, shortening, and 1 tablespoon of the flour; stir in the yeast and wait for it to bubble. If it has not bubbled in 5 minutes, get new yeast.
Stir in 5-6 cups flour, to make a kneadable dough. Knead 5-10 minutes, until satiny. Place in a greased bowl, turning to grease dough, and cover loosely with a clean damp cloth and let rise till double. Punch down; let rise again. Punch down again; shape into 2 loaves. Place in greased loaf pans and bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes, or until it sounds hollow on bottom.