January 12, 2010

Nutrition Program Makes Healthy Living a Family Matter

It can be easy to undervalue the importance of balanced nutrition in shaping the journey from infancy to adulthood. Lial, age 35 from Nazareth, suffered a painful childhood in a broken home without a mother. Married at 19, it wasn’t long before she realized the heavy physical and emotional price she would have to pay as an adult for her own parents’ absence and neglect during her formative years.

“In my youth, I was severely anorexic,” Lial confessed in a recent interview. “I starved myself completely and reached a weight of 65 pounds. My anorexia led to fertility problems which—combined with the fact that I didn’t know how to cook, as I never had a mother to teach me—eventually led to my divorce and left me alone in this world.”

Lial eventually became a single mother, and she was determined from the start to provide her daughter with a better, healthier childhood than the one she experienced. “After my daughter was born, I didn’t want her to be scared of food like I was. But since I couldn’t cook, all I could do was buy her hot dogs and lots of fattening foods—things I couldn’t bring myself to eat.”

Lial and her daughter are not alone. Many of Israel’s 350,000 at-risk children are vulnerable to eating disorders, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and various nutrition-related diseases, largely because those in charge of their care lack the means and knowledge to instill good eating habits. Healthy living programs are limited in schools due to insufficient funding, which further compounds the problem and challenges children’s long-term development.

With the help of the JDC-supported Nutrition Enrichment and Healthy Living Program, parents like Lial can now take command of their family’s choices around nutrition.

A partnership among JDC-Ashalim, the Ministries of Social Affairs, Education, and Health, and local municipalities, the Nutrition Program operates on a citywide level to provide poor and at-risk families the tools and the means to live healthfully. Setting up shop in area schools, community centers, and day care facilities, the program focuses on changing unhealthy food habits, embracing physical fitness, and making other positive lifestyle choices.

Parental involvement is key to the program’s success. At the Nazareth day care center that Lial’s daughter—now age 3—attends, the Nutrition Program offers intensive courses for parents and children, strengthening their bond while teaching parents how to set dietary boundaries for their children, prepare well-balanced meals, and shop smarter by understanding labels and the nutritional content.

Lial explains: “I learned which foods my daughter needs to develop properly. It was a difficult emotional journey. At first, when I discovered how nutritious eggs are and learned how to prepare them, I would try to feed her seven or eight eggs a day so she could stock up on what she lacked. But with the help of the dietician and social worker, we reached a balance. Now I cook recipes I learned in the program, and I can see the change in my daughter. She is happier and more energetic.”

During the 2008-2009 school year, the Nutrition Program reached over 1,200 children and their families in 13 cities: Afula, Beer Sheva, Dimona, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Kiryat Malachi, Migdal Ha’emek, Nazareth Illit, Ofakim, Rosh Haayin, and Safed-Hatzor. In Akko and Bet Shean, the programs have been so successful that JDC partners in those cities have taken over full responsibility for running them.

For Lial, the benefits go beyond saving her daughter from the emotional and physical toll of a childhood marked by poor nutrition. Helping her daughter grow healthfully has also healed old scars of her own. “I’ve learned to let go of my anger at my parents for not teaching me about food,” she said. “The Nutrition Program staff helped me see that I have to take care of my own body and eat well in order to have strength for my children. Thank you! The program has changed our lives forever.”

No comments: