Now Entering the ‘Fry-Free Zone’

How pastors and lay advocates are helping congregations improve diets, prepare healthy food and develop exercise habits

by Michelle J. Barrett

For ten Syracuse, New York area inner-city churches, the traditional menu for church-sponsored events has undergone significant and deliberate revamping. For decades, picnics and year-round fellowship programs offered fried chicken, potato salad, white bread, pastries and soda. Now church kitchens are serving baked chicken, tossed salad, whole-wheat bread, fruit, one-percent milk, water, coffee and tea. Church food preparers have embraced their pastors’ challenges to create “Fry-Free Zones” that reduce or completely exclude fried foods at fellowship events. Consequently, many congregants are modeling the new cooking behaviors they’ve experienced at church, bringing them home to their loved ones.

These ten churches are part of the Genesis Health Project, a community designed, culturally sensitive program to reduce obesity and related health risks, and promote healthy lifestyles among African Americans. In less than ten years, the Genesis Project, which targets black families in low-income areas of Syracuse, has touched—and in some cases, saved—hundreds of lives.

Syracuse University public health professor and Genesis Project co-founder Dr. Luvenia Cowart was well aware that African Americans are at greatest risk for obesity. She knew cultural and behavioral risk factors related to dietary choices, widespread acceptance of excess weight, and lack of physical activity contribute to disproportionate obesity rates. She recognized there was a compelling need to raise awareness among African Americans about the dangers of obesity and to help them engage in positive health practices.

And she knew where to start.

“Historically, the church has been the cornerstone of the African American community. Pastors can be crucial links to adopting new behaviors,” notes Cowart. Along with retired nurse and Genesis Project co-founder Betty Brown, Cowart recruited pastors to lead and motivate congregant participation. Today a Pastors’ Health Council includes membership from all participating churches. Led by Cowart, health trends and programmatic suggestions are discussed at quarterly meetings. Cowart and her team recruit pastors and train lay health advocates from their ministries who work as registrants, conduct surveys, provide health literacy support, and serve as data checkers during events. Advocates also play a critical liaison role between congregants and health professionals.

Nora McDonald, a lay health advocate from the Tucker Missionary Baptist Church, explains she has seen many personal transformations throughout her eight-year involvement with the Genesis Project. “It can be difficult for people to change their habits immediately or drastically. But by taking small steps, like reading food labels or cutting portion sizes, they start to see results, such as losing weight. They like what they see,” notes McDonald. “Sometimes people just need someone to show them how easy it is to get started.”

Much of the Genesis Project’s success can be attributed to the educational, hands-on nature of its initiatives and the results they produce. For example, when Fry-Free Zones were introduced, church food preparers met with a nutritionist who inventoried what they served and guided them on alternative menu items. She also illustrated how to make popular items healthier. Lay health advocate Audrey Gomez, who attends the Gospel Temple Church, admits making the switch from fried to baked foods can be difficult for some.

“Many African Americans are very grounded in their cultural communities. All of their celebrations serve foods that have been passed down through generations. But now they are learning small changes can make these foods taste good, and they can be good for you, too.” Health advocate McDonald concurs. “We still serve macaroni and cheese, but now we use low-fat cheese and simply use less of it.”

Similar to Fry-Free Zones, the 12-Week Fitness Program is another Genesis Project learn-by-doing initiative. The program includes a session with a nutritionist who cooks side-by-side with participants. “Typically she makes healthy quesadillas and instructs everyone on how to repeat the recipe at home,” says Brown. To help participants learn how easy healthy snacks can be, each 12-Week Fitness session starts off with a continental breakfast that includes granola bars, juice, yogurt and fresh fruit. (See sidebar for other Genesis Project initiatives.)

“Thanks to the Genesis Health Project, minority families are creating a new generational legacy for healthier lifestyles by sharing new health knowledge and experiences with family, friends, and church congregants,” says Cowart. A key strategy for the Genesis Project’s success is the cooperation of faculty and students in Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics who assist in many aspects of the programs. They offer academic programs in public health, nutrition and social work. Students work with lay health advocates and congregants. “We continue to see for ourselves what happens when people work together and change their habits. It keeps catching on,” says Gomez.

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