Eating our way to health

Nutrition Oregon Campaign aims to halt rise of chronic disease in the state

September 25, 2017

The children sit on the brightly-colored carpet as teachers explain, in a mix of both English and Spanish, about the popcorn poppers sitting on tables around the room. The teachers produce ears of dried corn from the children's garden;they pull a few kernels from the cob to pass around before putting a handful in the heated poppers. The preschoolers watch the kernels dance in the hot oil and shriek with delight as the first kernels pop into the more recognizable fluffy white popcorn.

Head Start program in Ontario, Ore.

The OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness has dropped by this bilingual Head Start program in Ontario, Ore., as part of a statewide tour to better understand how nutrition impacts Oregon communities. Here, the children engage with the food cycle from farm to fork through planting, tending and harvesting their own garden and then cooking and eating what they grow through their daily meals or a classroom activity like this one. The idea is to help them see the whole cycle of food and encourage a love of nutritious foods. To move the conversation about healthy eating beyond the classroom, parents are invited weekly to share in the provided lunch and a drawing allows one family to go home with all the groceries needed to make that week's featured recipe.

The Moore Institute wanted to hear directly from Oregonians about the role of nutrition in their community's health, their barriers to eating a nutritious diet and the work already underway to improve nutrition. This is part of the planning phase for the Nutrition Oregon Campaign, a proposed statewide nutrition education and outreach campaign geared toward community leaders to help them understand the importance of nutrition in improving community health.

During the past 25 years, American diets have moved away from fresh, home cooked meals and become more reliant on fast, packaged and processed foods. This same time period has seen a steady rise in rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. More than half of all Oregonians are now living with at least one chronic disease. Rates of obesity in Oregon have gone from about 12 percent in 1990 to more than 30 percent in 2015 and Oregon Health Authority data predict there will be more than 1 million Oregonians with heart disease by the year 2030.

Dr. Kent Thornburg at Red Apple Grocery"Continuing on this trajectory unchecked will prove devastating to Oregon communities, the current health system and the Oregon economy," according to Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., director of the Moore Institute and professor of medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine.

OHSU is an international leader in determining how our risk for chronic disease is woven into our very makeup, and how it is passed down from one generation to the next. This emerging field of research, called the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, or DOHaD, has shown the seeds of chronic disease are planted much earlier than we once realized. The nutrition received during fetal development through the first two years of life impacts how robustly organs and bodily systems are built, and programs long-term risk for developing chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The Moore Institute works to translate this research into programs and policies that directly impact the health of our communities.

Along with Ontario, Moore Institute representatives visited Bend, Klamath Falls, Medford and Newport. Each stop included a half-day listening session with community members. Ontario and Klamath Falls also had a listening tour put together by a local community advocate, including visits to organizations, programs and people working to improve nutrition in their community. Stops included WIC offices, community gardens, grocery stores, county government offices, schools and food banks.

People were appreciative of seeing OHSU in their local communities and eager to share the work being done to improve nutrition. "We don't often get to tell our story. Lots of decisions are made, and programs come and go and we're just not included," said Kelly Poe, director of community based services at the Malheur County Educational Services District. Poe coordinated the Ontario listening tour. "So when someone from the urban valley contacts us, I want to engage," she added.

Nutritious items are featured at Shasta Elementary school In Klamath Falls, a visit to an elementary school found students reaching for broccoli, carrots and orange wedges from the salad cart they pass before receiving a hot entrée. The school, Shasta Elementary, has also worked to implement a policy that all snacks brought to school must be picked from a tree or pulled from the ground –something easily visual for the students and another teaching moment about the importance of fresh, whole foods. In a high-poverty school where most of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, they received little push-back from parents about financial or logistical barriers.

At a stop at the only locally-owned grocery left in Klamath Falls, Moore Institute leaders learned that while the community is surrounded by crop land, most of what is produced goes to large manufacturers, with little of it available to the local community. The director of Klamath Works, a job training program, shared how food has been the primary bonding issue for their clients. Groups prepare meals and eat together, learning how to cook with fresh produce, how to eat well on SNAP benefits and how to make them last through the end of the month.

All told, the Moore Institute heard from more than 170 individuals and organizations in the six communities. The information gathered reinforced the plan to target the initial campaign toward leaders, specifically among health care providers, community health workers, education officials and community, business and government leaders. It is essential to have a broad base of understanding and support among these groups for programs and policies using a DOHaD lens to move forward and gain support. Understanding how nutrition impacts school readiness and performance, health care risk factors and outcomes, as well as absenteeism and a productive workforce is crucial to improving the health and well-being of Oregonians.

The Ford Family Foundation supported the planning phase of the campaign, including the listening tours. The experiences and information gathered during this phase informed the draft plan of the Nutrition Oregon Campaign. The statewide tours helped build a base of support for a sustained campaign. The plan is to build on this initial momentum to develop collaborations with local organizations interested in moving the campaign forward. The Moore Institute is continuing to deepen these collaborations as it searches for funding for the next phase of the campaign.

To learn more, visit the Nutrition Oregon Campaign website.