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When Nancy Moreno was a single mother on food stamps, trying to support her four young children, she prepared large meals that were often deep-fried and made with lots of salt and lard.
Then she took a free EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program) class from Colorado State University Extension and learned how to cook healthy meals and eat proper portions on a tight budget, while also learning how to be more physically active.
Now, 30 pounds lighter, she’s teaching the same classes as an EFNEP educator in Arapahoe County.
September is “Hunger Awareness Month,” and nearly one in seven Coloradans struggle with hunger. More than 25 percent of working families in the state do not have enough food to meet their basic needs, and Colorado has the second-fastest growing child obesity rate in the nation.
It’s also been nearly 10 years since Colorado State University faculty member Susan Baker led the development of “Eating Smart • Being Active,” a research-based series of nutrition and exercise classes that has become the most widely used curriculum of its kind in the nation, taught in 40 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Washington, D.C.
Moreno, a Los Angeles native, got married at age 14 and moved from California to Colorado two years later with her now-ex-husband. Until they divorced in 2005, she was financially secure. The couple operated three meat markets (carnicerias) in the Denver area. However, her husband gained control of those carnicerias during their divorce proceedings.
She got custody of their four children, ages 12, 9, 6 and 4, but her lack of income forced her to move into a one-bedroom apartment.
“I got $420 a month, and rent was $925,” Moreno recalls. “I don’t even know how I made it. I never went to a food bank.”
She got various odd jobs, from cleaning offices to working at a friend’s flower shop.
“I was going everywhere and anywhere,” Moreno says. “I didn’t have a stable job.”
And she was ashamed.
“I didn’t want my family to know what I was going through, so I didn’t ask them for help,” Moreno says.
Then, while earning her GED from the Community College of Aurora, she took an Eating Smart • Being Active class from Marilyn Whatley, a CSU Extension EFNEP nutrition educator. The classes were required for anyone receiving support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
“I was a new educator myself, and Nancy was in my very first class,” Whatley remembers. “She was trying to make genuine changes every week.”
“Marilyn pulled me aside at one point,” Moreno says. “She said, ‘You seem responsible, you’d fit well in this position.’”
Moreno thought she might be good at teaching the class too. She had always excelled in customer service roles, including at her carnicerias, where she often gave extra meat to customers who paid with food stamps.
“I would send them back for a half a pound more,” Moreno recalls. “I’ve always liked to help people.”
A change for the better
She ended up getting the job teaching EFNEP classes in 2013, and since then her work hours have been increased from 30 to 40. Moreno was able to afford a larger apartment and has continued using the shopping tips, recipes and exercises she learned from Whatley. She lost weight, and so did her kids.
“At first they would complain sometimes because I would add vegetables like spinach or kale to their smoothies,” she says. “They weren’t that interested at first. But now they are used to it.”
“And I felt like I had more energy,” Moreno adds. “When you eat junk food, you don’t feel like doing anything.”
Now, when she sees students in her class who look like they are in the position she was in, she tells them what she went through.
“A lot of people don’t talk much, they have to get to know you first,” Moreno says. “So I started sharing my experience. If I see that they’re in need and embarrassed to ask for help, I’ll tell some of my story. I try to give them something to give them hope.”
Some of her former students have become friends, including one woman who has taken the eight-session course twice.
“Everyone told her she was ugly and fat,” Moreno says. “I started telling her that no one in this world is ugly. It’s about putting yourself together. Now she’s lost so much weight. She would text me at 2 in the morning and say, ‘I’m doing it, I’m doing it!’”
About the course
The classes, which feature everything from interactive cooking demonstrations to cardio exercises to free cookbooks, are held at schools, low-income health clinics and county human services departments. Moreno and other instructors recruit participants by setting up tables and skillets in front of grocery stores, where the smell of simmering food sometimes attracts prospective students.
Results of participants’ pre-tests and post-tests show that the curriculum effects positive behavioral changes in the majority of those who complete it. It was developed in 2007 by a team led by Baker, a professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. (A paper by Baker and several co-authors demonstrating the effectiveness of ESBA was recently named the best article of 2015 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.) Baker and her team are now in the process of updating the curriculum to reflect the latest nutrition guidelines issued by the federal government.
In Colorado, CSU Extension delivers the ESBA program to 13 counties, and 2,401 family members benefited from the curriculum in 2015. A new smartphone app is being developed that will include recipes in English and Spanish, a grocery list, demos of physical activities and a physical activity tracker.
“You have to push yourself a little bit,” Moreno says of what she learned — and what she now teaches. “I was that person. I didn’t want to ask for food stamps because I was embarrassed. I was scared that people would judge me. You have to ask for help or you won’t get it.”