Nancy Harrell, left, talks with Hope Station Pantry Manager Bonnie Wood, about healthy food choices. Harrell is a participant in a new pilot program that is designed to reduce obesity and improve health measures by providing healthier food selections and nutrition education. Since Harrell began the program, she has already lost 40 pounds.
Olivia Neeley | Times
By Olivia Neeley
Times Staff Writer
For years, Nancy Harrell struggled to walk long distances without getting “slam out of breath.” She didn’t eat that healthy, either. She also consumed five to six sodas a day and thoroughly enjoyed her sweet tea.
But things have changed for the 69-year-old in recent months thanks to a pilot program at Hope Station aiming to reduce obesity rates and improve health measures by providing healthier food options and nutrition education for its pantry clients.
Harrell, who has been a Hope Station client for a few years now, has lost about 40 pounds as a result of the program.
“I feel good now,” she said with a bright smile. “I’m not as tired. I can walk a whole lot faster.”
Harrell now walks between one to three miles a day and doesn’t get winded easily. Her food choices have improved drastically. She is one of more than 50 pantry clients who have participated in the new program made possible after the Healthcare Foundation of Wilson awarded Hope Station a $30,000 grant. Harrell, along with others, keeps logs to track what they eat and how much they weigh on a daily basis.
On the first Tuesday of the month, she heads into Hope Station to meet with Barton College nursing and nutrition students who measure their weight, body mass index, blood pressure and waist measurements. Students also consult clients on nutrition and go over the person’s data collected.
“They go through it with me and tell us what we want to do next to improve ourselves,” Harrell said. “I tell them I want to lose more weight.”
Pantry clients in the program also get to go through Hope Station’s pantry where staff and volunteers serve as “shopping assistants” to encourage healthier food choices.
Bonnie Wood, Hope Station’s pantry manager, said participants also try new and different things that help them have a greater food vocabulary.
“A lot of people when they first started this seemed very limited in what they wanted because their experience hadn’t allowed them to really get to know other options,” Wood said. “Any time you have more options, it’s going to make you feel better, rather than limiting yourself.”
Harrell started the program weighing 256 pounds. She’s now down to 217.
The program also coincides with Hope Station’s intentional efforts to increase the quality of food in the pantry and offer all its clients healthier food choices.
‘I CAN FEEL IT’
Wood said when program participants like Harrell are consistent and follow the guidelines, they experience success.
“They are the ones who are losing weight,” Wood said. “They are getting control of their conditions they are dealing with, whether that’s diabetes or blood pressure. They feel really good about themselves.”
And that’s evident when watching Harrell speak about her experience and meeting her goals.
“It’s hard to think I’ve lost that much weight,” Harrell said. “I can look at myself and I can’t tell it that much, but I can feel it. It’s all due to Hope Station. If they hadn’t started this program, I wouldn’t have lost it. Now, I can get out and do things. I’m proud of myself.”
‘I WANTED TO GET HEALTHIER’
Harrell, who was on disability but now receives Social Security, reached out to Hope Station a few years ago. There were four people living in her home on her income alone. It was difficult to make ends meet.
She said they didn’t have much food in the house and relied on the Hope Station’s food pantry each month. She said several months ago when she visited the pantry, officials asked her about joining the pilot program.
“I wanted to get healthier,” Harrell said.
Since she’s lost weight, other health outcomes have improved.
“The last two times, my blood pressure has been normal,” she said. “My sugar was at 150 at first and the last few times it was at 90.”
Harrell, who has diabetes and takes medication for blood pressure and cholesterol, said even her doctor was impressed with her progress. He recently told her if she kept it up, she could possibly come off some of those medications, which was good news to her.
“I hate taking pills,” she said.
Her husband, who had diabetes, died five years ago.
LOW-INCOME, FOOD INSECURITY AND OBESITY
The juxtaposition of high food insecurity rates and obesity is something community leaders often discuss and try to educate the public about.
Those on tight budgets are more prone to buy processed foods because they are much cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, officials said.
Since 1980, officials say the cost of fresh foods has increased by 40 percent compared to a 40 percent decrease in the cost of processed foods during that same time period.
“I think there are misunderstandings about the food choices that low-income persons make when they are grocery shopping,” said the Rev. Linda Walling, Hope Station’s executive director. “With limited resources, they are forced into making less healthy choices. They reality is that healthy food is much more expensive than the junk food that can make children’s stomachs feel full.”
Walling said for the same price of one large apple, a mother can buy high-calorie noodle meals for three or four children. A large bottle of sugary orange soft drink is much cheaper than a carton of orange juice, she added.
“We are discovering that as we have transitioned to healthier food in the Hope Station pantry, clients are appreciative of the healthier choices,” Walling said.
Obesity fuels other health problems including diabetes and high blood pressure. Those who are low-income and food insecure are vulnerable to obesity, according to research. Some of those factors include limited resources, access to healthy, affordable foods, cycles of food deprivation and overeating, stress, anxiety and depression and fewer opportunities for physical activity.
Low-income neighborhoods often lack full-service grocery stores and some families are less likely to have a car for regular grocery shopping.
“If you are food insecure, you are not going to spend on things you don’t know,” Wood said. “By allowing them to try new things at no cost to them, it then allows them to make better choices later on because then they know what they can spend without risk.”
Wood said if a family has $5, they are going to spend that last $5 on something they know is going to fill everybody’s belly, make them happy and get them through the day.
“You are not going to take chances with something that precious,” she said.
PROGRAM DATA SO FAR
Walling said the data Hope Station staffers submitted to the Healthcare Foundation at the beginning of April shows steady growth.
Of the 39 pantry clients who participated in three or more monthly sessions since September, one woman lost 33 pounds and improved three out of four health measures.
Another woman improved in all four health measures. She said 17 have improved in at least two of the health measures and all but five have improved in at least one.
“At Hope Station, we share the Healthcare Foundation’s concern about the rate of obesity in our community,” Walling said. “As we have surveyed our clients from time to time, we’ve also been alarmed about the rate of diabetes and high blood pressure. We began to realize that we could keep contributing to the problem by giving out unhealthy foods because they are cheaper, or we could work on being agents of change for the folks who come to our pantry.”
Walling said the project with the Healthcare Foundation is allowing Hope Station to test a theory that is proving its pantry can do more than just stave off hunger.
“We are helping to improve the health measures of at least some of the persons who come through our doors, and that’s very exciting,” she said. “We are very grateful to the Healthcare Foundation for allowing us to do that.”