Hunger, nutritional challenges and urban food access might not be the first thought one has when thinking about the East Orange YMCA. However, today’s East Orange Y and YMCA across the country are expanding community awareness of their role in addressing comprehensive health, wellness and prevention. Increasingly becoming a voice for diabetes and obesity prevention and a convener in efforts to address significant community issues, the East Orange YMCA, with funding through a Shaping NJ grant, is in the second year on facilitating the Healthier East Orange Coalition. The Coalition is taking a two pronged approach to encouraging healthier lifestyle choices among residents. Increased physical activity is being promoted through the expansion of the East Orange H.I.K.E. The Health Initiative to Keep Exercising is an East Orange Urban Trail marking historical and noteworthy sites within the City designed to encourage walking.
In order to address the second priority, nutritional change, the Y has brought together community partners to engage in a dialog on healthy food accessibility in the East Orange community. Understanding that lasting and effective change will only happen through the investment of key, city-wide leadership, the YMCA has invited a diverse group to the table. East Orange YMCA is joined by the East Orange Health & Human Services, East Orange General Hospital, East Orange Police Department, East Orange Historic Society, East Orange Recreation Department, Clergy of East Orange, America’s Grow-A-Row, Shop Rite and the YMCA Director of Healthy Living.
Through this ongoing collaboration, resources from various partners are being leveraged to facilitate the development and implementation of healthy meals and menus in support of children, families and seniors. Discussions to expand effectiveness and diversify the initiative have led to additional invitations to WIC and the East Orange Food Program. Both have voiced an interest in participating.
Most recent discussions were built on a survey of YMCA after-school children. The survey addressed the children’s experience of being hungry, energy levels when hungry, their daily vegetable and fruit intake, and their ability to name diverse fruits and vegetable.
Through this simple survey, the Coalition members were able to outline the next steps in developing basic nutritional education and exposure opportunities, potential menus and meal preparation ideas for families, and the need to engage agencies serving the most economically challenged members of the community. Short-term awareness and incentive programs are being investigated and piloted in support of long-term environmental and policy. School and YMCA based programing could help to overcome the obstacles to getting children to discover and consume more fruits and vegetables.
The second biggest obstacle raised in the group was the concept that healthy food choices equate to higher cost. Many East Orange residents believe that it is hard to eat healthy and not spend large amounts of money. As a result of the Coalition’s efforts and conversations, menus and recipes are to be distributed to children and their families. Healthy food preparation instruction and local supermarket incentives are also being investigated.
The East Orange YMCA, Shaping NJ and the East Orange community leaders involved in the Healthier East Orange Coalition are setting the table for change.