This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
Before she joined Fresh Conversations, a weekly health and fitness class, Fannie Johnson, 77, was overweight and battling high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Soda pop and other high-sugar foods were part of her daily diet.
However, the northwest Detroit resident is no longer on medications for either condition and has lost weight since attending Fresh Conversations, taught by the Methodist Children’s Home Society (MCHS) in Detroit. She also no longer drinks soda, just one of many changes she has made to her diet and daily health regimen.
“My doctor, who told me to lose a little weight, can’t believe the change in me,” Johnson says. “Stopping pop was a really big thing. It has a lot of sugar, but I don’t drink coffee anymore either. I eat more vegetables and fewer sweets because I read labels.”
MCHS began offering the Fresh Conversations program in the spring of 2019. It is funded with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches those eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.
Sixty-minute Fresh Conversations program sessions for seniors are run by MCHS and are offered at community centers and other sites in Detroit. The program’s goal is to help seniors make changes in their diet and fitness routines to curtail chronic diseases and promote healthy aging. The sessions help promote healthy food and beverage choices.
“It’s truly a conversation,” says Norvena Wilson, associate director of senior programs for MCHS, a licensed, nonprofit childcare agency serving children and families in Michigan. “They’re not only learning from facilitators who run the classes but also from each other, from their peers in similar situations. They’re learning how their peers have incorporated healthy eating and physical activities into their lifestyles.”
Led by Valerie Middlebrook, a retired high school teacher and former head coach of varsity basketball and track and cross country, the classes include conversations about nutrition, healthy eating, demonstrations of low-impact exercises, and simple stretches participants can easily do at home. Each class includes a healthy recipe and a newsletter.
“It’s important for them to incorporate those exercises at home,” says Middlebrook, who also teaches aerobics and stretch classes regularly. “I incorporate activities they can do at home with stretch bands to help build muscular strength. They can exercise sitting down or stepping in place listening to music. It’s important to continue to be active.”
Barriers for the program include lack of transportation to community centers or other sites where the classes are held, and lack of fresh produce and food in the city.
“Detroit is really a food desert,” Middlebrook says. “A lot of people don’t have access to healthy food markets in their neighborhoods. There are only 70 grocery stores in the city and not all of them are full-service grocery stores. As a result, the food at convenience stores and other types of stores might not be fresh.”
She notes that there are nine to 10 fast-food restaurants per grocery store in the city, whose population hovers around 670,000 people.
“Unhealthy options far outnumber the fresh markets in the city,” she says. “People can find whatever they want when it comes to fast food, but finding fruits and vegetables can be a problem.”
Publicized through community centers and faith-based organizations, Fresh Conversations classes were held regularly until the statewide shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Suspended for over 12 weeks, the classes have recently resumed through telephone conference calls and will continue through mid-August. Conference calls are offered during two different time slots, twice a week.
“Participants will not have to drive anywhere or use a computer,” Wilson says, noting that transportation is not an issue with this way of delivering the program. “We mail them the class materials and they call the class telephone hotline. It’s important that we can keep in touch with them and keep encouraging healthy lifestyles.”
The ultimate goal remains helping senior citizens find ways to incorporate healthy food and physical activities that resonate with their lifestyle and enable them to make long-term changes.
“What we’re finding is that small changes make a difference,” Wilson says.
That’s been the case for Johnson, who has continued to exercise on her own during the pandemic. She’s also implemented many dietary changes that she learned from Fresh Conversations. She’s started cooking from home more frequently instead of relying on fast food, whipping up dishes like black bean burgers, oatmeal, and macaroni and cheese that uses cauliflower instead of pasta.
“I learned from Valerie that you got to get back to the kitchen,” Johnson says. “It makes a big difference.”
Johnson notes that she has also seen lifestyle changes in her peers.
“It’s not only me,” she says. “I’ve seen other people doing better. I think your mental health is better when you exercise. I think some senior citizens were just home and weren’t doing anything and getting depressed. And now we’re doing all kinds of things and staying busy in our own homes.”