Rutgers Helps Promote Healthy Eating in Urban Kitchens

Rutgers Helps Promote Healthy Eating in Urban Kitchens

Biomedical and Health Sciences students team with the Greater Newark Conservancy to improve nutrition literacy in city populations

Zainab Bahrainwala, left, a graduate student at the School of Public Health, and New Jersey Medical School student Rachel Morales with Newark Mayor Cory Booker at a Greater Newark Conservancy event.

44% of boys and 45% of girls in Newark ages 3 - 18 are overweight or obese. 
Source: New Jersey Childhood Obesity Survey

Eating healthy and affordably can seem an impossibility to many city dwellers. With supermarkets a rarity in urban centers, residents often think that nutritious meals are out of their reach and rely on high-fat fast food or packaged convenience store selections instead.

This summer, a multidisciplinary team of Rutgers students joined the Greater Newark Conservancy – an organization that promotes environmental stewardship to improve the quality of life in New Jersey’s urban communities – to challenge that mindset by creating an educational booklet that will accompany a documentary that the conservancy is producing on healthy eating. Health in the City follows three Newark teenagers who don’t believe it’s possible to live in their neighborhood and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Along the way, they meet people who illustrate the benefits of healthy eating and learn that such a lifestyle is possible and affordable. The documentary and its accompanying booklet will be distributed in the fall.

Renee Kee, director of the project for the Conservancy, said she wanted to show people that with a little bit of education they can stock up at the grocery store for the week and spend less money than if they were constantly going to the corner store instead. “We also want to encourage people to set goals for themselves, and that’s where the booklet comes in,” she says. “Its mission is to explain the importance of being healthy, how to be healthy and how readers can create a healthier environment where they live.”

It’s a perspective that the conservancy hopes will dramatically alter alarming local statistics. According to a recent New Jersey Childhood Obesity Survey conducted by Rutgers Center for State Health Policy, 44 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls in Newark ages 3 to 18 are overweight or obese and 54 percent of those children spend less than a half hour a day being physically active.

“Since there are not many supermarkets, residents think it’s difficult to find fresh produce – and when they do, it will be expensive,” says Zainab Bahrainwala, a graduate student at the School of Public Health, who, along with New Jersey Medical School student Rachel Morales, surveyed Newark residents about their eating habits, motivation and self-confidence to create the 38-page booklet. The students participated as part of the Bridging the Gaps Community Health Internship, a seven-week program that links graduate students preparing for careers in health and social services with community initiatives in underserved populations. The Philadelphia-based program is administered in New Jersey by Rutgers School of Public Health.

The Health in the City booklet is designed to educate children about basic nutrition and eliminate some confusion. “For example, we found that people think fat is bad, but they don’t know there are good fats like those in avocado and olive oils, nuts seeds and fish. So we teach them how to distinguish between good and bad fats,” says Bahrainwala. “We also provide easy, healthy recipes for people on a low budget.”

A key component is an illustrated guide to the five food groups, which incorporates fruits, whole grains and healthy proteins but encourages readers to fill half their plates with green, leafy vegetables. “We made the plate look like something they would actually serve so they could relate,” says Morales. “For example, people don’t often put fruit on their plate, so we placed the fruits on the side, as if they were a dessert.”

Since physical activity is important to healthy living, the students also included resources, including parks, where residents can get exercise.

“We are combating a huge issue – changing how people think about their eating – and at times it felt daunting,” says Bahrainwala. “But we hope that people who see this documentary and read the booklet will make crucial steps toward improving their health.”

The project was funded by the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.