Life got really tough when Schmeaker Swoopes was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The longtime nurse was out of work for several years, saddled with mounting medical bills as she and her husband struggled to feed their three teenagers and adult son. Five years later, many challenges still exist.

“It took me down,” she said. “I take a lot of expensive meds, so buying enough food is very difficult at times.”

Swoopes’ oldest son, Darrel, has Down syndrome and lives at home. She calls the 26-year old who is studying culinary arts at Houston Community College (HCC) a “magician in the kitchen.” It’s ironic, considering their family is often challenged to have enough food on the table. Nearly 17 percent of Harris County residents are food insecure, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

“It’s harder to eat healthy because it costs more than the unhealthy food,” said Swoopes.

The family receives 60 pounds of free food twice a month through HCC’s Food Scholarship Program. Researchers at the University of Houston’s department of health and human performance are tracking Darrel, and thousands of other low-income HCC students, through funding from the Kresge and William T. Grant foundations. Research shows that more than half of community college students are food insecure.

“Food insecurity is a barrier to graduation for these students,” said Daphne Hernandez, UH associate professor and co-principal investigator on the study.

While financial issues can limit access to healthy food, geography plays a role too. More than 23 million Americans live in “food deserts”—areas that are more than a mile away from a supermarket. Regardless of socioeconomic status, the typical American diet is poor. Only one in 10 adults eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day.

Hernandez recalls a woman at the HCC food distribution site who refused to take a free cabbage, a vegetable packed with nutrients and many health benefits. “She said ‘I don’t know what to do with that.’ So instead of trying it, she just didn’t take the cabbage because it’s unfamiliar,” said Hernandez, who now provides recipes so students can prepare appealing dishes that are also healthy.

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A recent report projects that by 2030, half of all adults in the United States will be obese. Changing peoples’ attitudes about food and nutrition are among the biggest challenges to tackling the obesity epidemic, according to Norma Olvera, professor in the department  of psychological, health and learning Sciences at the College of Education. Until people start viewing food as fuel instead of comfort, she said, America’s collective waistline will keep getting bigger, leading to costly chronic diseases including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Olvera’s BOUNCE (Behavior Opportunities Uniting Nutrition, Counseling and Exercise) program provides cooking demonstrations, grocery store tours, nutrition classes and fitness instruction to low-income minority children and their families.

“More than 23 million Americans live in ‘food deserts’—areas that are more than a mile away from a supermarket.”

“Parents plead with us all the time, ‘Show me how to eat healthy.’ Everyone knows they should eat more fruits, vegetables and less sugar, but they still want it to taste good,” said Olvera.

Dieticians and chefs offer recipes and healthy alternatives to some unhealthy favorites. Plain Greek yogurt is a great substitute for sour cream, for example, while guacamole can replace mayonnaise. The children are also schooled in the science behind the food so they can make better choices.

During a presentation on food labels by the Houston Food Bank, only six of the 32 kids in the class raised their hands when asked if they read nutrition labels. Sandy Hernandez, 13, was shocked to learn how much sugar was in one 12-ounce can of peach juice—46 grams. Experts recommend getting less than 50 grams of added sugar daily.

“I thought that juice was healthy, but when I saw the amount of sugar in it, I was blown away,” she said. “There’s not even any real fruit in there.”

Like all of the children in the BOUNCE program, Sandy struggles with her weight. Now armed with information and motivation, she’s eager to adopt a healthier lifestyle. “I’m getting slimmer and I can move around more, which boosts my self-esteem and academic focus,” she said.

It’s a different way to look at food. You wouldn’t put bad fuel in your vehicle, so why put it in your body?

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