Sacramento youth services center teaches nutrition

03/30/2012 12:00 AM

04/01/2012 12:54 PM

If you're a kid on the streets, jumping from shelter to couch to doorway each night, a square meal isn't likely a part of your regular diet.

That's exactly why the young leaders at Wind Youth Services – all of them formerly homeless – put nutrition at the top of their list of health topics to teach the vulnerable teens who spend their days there.

It's also why it will be so hard for the teens to put their lessons about healthy eating into practice.

"You'll see them come in in the morning, and their breakfast is a bag of Hot Cheetos and a soda, because that is what is available on the way to get here," said Melissa Binger, manager of Wind's health program.

Homeless and near-homeless youth ages 11 to 22 come to the nonprofit's center off Del Paso Boulevard each weekday to study, shower, relax, eat a free lunch and find support services in a safe place. Six young people who once needed those services themselves now work as paid, part-time "health ambassadors," orienting newcomers to the center, connecting them with resources and giving health tips.

When a volunteer suggested they design and teach health education classes to their peers, they chose to start with nutrition.

"When you're in a not-so-safe situation, moving a lot, you eat when you can," said ambassador Kevin Johnson, 18, who has a home in Natomas now but speaks from personal experience. "The kids who come here, a lot of them don't have a lot of money. It's expensive to be healthy."

The National Coalition for the Homeless has reported that more than one in three homeless people in the U.S. are children under age 18, and that one in five children have so little food that they go to bed and wake up hungry.

The ambassadors delivered their first nutrition class on Thursday to about a dozen youths at Wind.

Johnson handed out a menu with options like Buffalo chicken wings, Doritos, string cheese and Snickers bars. He invited each student to pick an item, "And we'll prepare it for you," he said.

From the kitchen a few minutes later came bowls heaped with sugar and shortening, representing fat. Murmurs of "Eew!" and "What the?" broke out as the teens poked at the white, sticky shortening.

"What you guys are looking at is all the fats, sugar, salts and oils that are in your body after you eat those chicken wings or that bag of Doritos," Johnson said.

Stacia Alexander, 20, talked the youths through what's on a nutrition label – serving size, calories, fat, sodium – reviewing examples for a Carl's Jr. burger, a McDonald's Oreo McFlurry, Honey Nut Tasteeos cereal and triple-chocolate brownies.

Jessie Mills, 18, outlined the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 10 tips for eating on a budget.

Then she concluded class by coaching the students to make a smoothie. The teens laughed and eagerly slurped down the smoothies. They listened attentively as the ambassadors taught them.

But would the lesson change anything?

Most of the youths at Wind get food stamps, which many spend on food at gas stations, Johnson said. The ambassadors hoped their students would now consider spending food stamps on canned fruit or pre-roasted chicken. But the teens' options are severely limited.

From that spot in low-income North Sacramento, the ambassadors said the nearest supermarket, a Safeway, is 20 minutes away by light rail. The nearest small market is a 10-minute walk, but Johnson called it "expensive as hell."

"It's impossible to do it" like the ambassadors suggested, said Cody Tienken, 19, who said he spent a decade in group care and foster homes in the Central Valley and has lived on the streets of south Sacramento since last year. "What do you take for granted when you have a house? A fridge, a freezer and something to cook with."

When his April food stamps come, Tienken said, "I'll probably mostly be buying pre-made foods that don't need to be cooked: Pop Tarts, dry cereal, chips."

Johnson said he fully expects the kids at Wind to keep eating Doritos. At the end of class, his older brother Bryan, also a health ambassador, passed out a list of free food pantries around town.

If the teens do nothing more than make use of those pantries, the Johnson brothers thought, that would be good.


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