GRESHAM, Ore. – A dozen women in black aprons clustered around a kitchen island chopping onions, shredding chicken and chatting in Spanish.
At a community center in Gresham, they were making chicken chili in a nutrition and exercise program for Hispanic families taught in Spanish by Oregon State University’s Extension Service. The free eight-week class helps participants with the fundamentals of healthy eating like choosing more vegetables over too many carbohydrates, baking instead of frying and substituting water for soda.
Extension offers the course every four months in nine communities in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. Since the nutrition education programs launched12 years ago, more than 6,300 adults and 9,000 children have taken classes, according to Lynn Steele, leader of OSU Extension’s Hispanic nutrition program in the metro area.
Hispanic immigrants often eat less nutritiously once they leave their traditional diets and lifestyles, said Steele. Health problems such as diabetes and high cholesterol spike as they begin eating the high-fat, high-sugar diets common in the United States.
“When they find out they are pre-diabetic or have another condition, they’re kind of in a panic,” Steele said. “They don’t want to go down that road. They come to the class to learn to prevent illness and how they can offer their families a variety of food for good health.”
Women in the course in Gresham heard about it from Extension’s volunteer community health promoters who work with churches, community centers and government social service agencies to identify people who might benefit from the program.
Lorena Caballero, who took the classes more than 10 years ago, is now one of the promoters.
“I’ve lost weight,” she said. “My kids are starting to read nutrition labels. They’ll read the potato chips and say, ‘Oh, I can only eat 12 potato chips.’”
Christina Ramirez, who has completed several courses, spoke through a translator about having diabetes on both sides of her family and a pre-diabetic husband.
“I learned I’m at high risk,” said Ramirez, who is sending her family in Mexico illustrated recipes that Extension published in Spanish and English. “So little by little we’ve reduced the amount of carbs that we eat. We’re making half of our plates vegetables. My husband is starting to take it more seriously.”
In addition to healthy eating, she has added an exercise regime that includes walking, Zumba, yoga and weightlifting. As a result, she has lost 24 pounds in 18 months.
When the women finished cooking and moved on to the exercise portion of the class, they marched in place swirling orange, pink and yellow scarves as their young children ate healthy snacks, drew pictures and played. Bonding between families is an added benefit.
“The group interaction is so important,” Steele said. “Their extended families are in Mexico or another Latin American country. They’re lonely. Depression is not uncommon.”
Candida de Jesus said she had been depressed.
“I didn’t dress well,” said the mother of five said in Spanish. “Now I’m losing weight, dressing better and feeling much better about myself. And I’m teaching my kids to eat vegetables and drink water instead of soda.”
Most of the women in this particular class started their journey in a Walk With Ease course offered by OSU Extension and designed for people with chronic problems such as arthritis. Participants walk for as long as they can, two to three times each week, and get familiar with the importance of exercise.
“They get so much from it,” said Steele. “We want them to develop habits around physical activity. Between that and the nutrition component, the classes change their lives.”
The Hispanic nutrition program is overseen by Extension’s Family and Community Health program in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Services. It is part of OSU Extension’s statewide nutrition education program for limited-income Oregonians, which is funded by Oregon’s Department of Human Services. A video on the Hispanic program can be found in English and Spanish.
Upcoming Hispanic nutrition classes start in October in Aloha, Beaverton, Cornelius, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Portland, Sandy, Tigard and Troutdale. For days and times, contact the OSU Extension office in Portland at 503-254-5004 or in Washington County at 503-821-1134.