At the Native Health facilities in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, you can get literacy with lunch in a program called Read It and Eat—a combination of early literacy and cooking classes designed to address some of the health concerns facing Native American children.
“We’ve combined a literacy program offered through the City of Phoenix Libraries where we help mothers learn how to read interactively with their children, along with a proven cooking curriculum designed to be relevant to the served population, offered by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health,” said Susan Levy, of Native Health.
“The literacy portion involves movement, dancing, and storytelling which leads into a discussion of healthy foods like seasonal fruits and vegetables and the nutritional way to cook them,” she said. “Participants make the dishes and either consume them in class or take them home along with a reusable tote bag filled with produce and recipes.”
Bea Salazar, Native Health Director of Community Health and Wellness oversees the monthly program that began this January. Attendance may vary by class, but generally involves from 10 to 25 moms, a few fathers, and some always-hungry kids.
“Someone from the Phoenix Public Library will read the children an educational book and have the youngsters pronounce the words and explore the concepts,” Salazar said. “The reader will model how to respond to a child in the learning process and will coach and mentor families on how to answer a youngster’s questions. Then the class moves into the cooking portion with some easy-to-make edibles involving fresh and healthy ingredients. After they cook, they eat and then we hand out tote bags of farmers market produce to be taken home.”
In testimonial letters, one father said his 4-year-old daughter loves the story time and that: “it teaches me how to bond with my daughter more as I now read her a story at bedtime. And since I cook at home, my daughter now helps me prepare the food from the ideas we have learned in the class. We both now make better choices to eat healthier.”
Child Health Program Manager Samantha Highsmith said word of mouth advertising is causing a community buzz and greater involvement from those who want to help. “In addition to our partnership with the library readers, other community entities are becoming involved. Southwest Human Development has donated a children’s library collection that allows families to take a book home with them. Health Net Access has provided funding for food that needs to be purchased, and Sprouts Farmers Market sells classroom foodstuffs at cost as well as preparing the tote bags to be given to families.”
“Our concerns here involve healthy eating and its effect on things like childhood obesity and diabetes. It’s an integrated health care, a holistic look at healthcare across the board, and how disorders can be affected by the foods we eat,” Salazar said.
Walter Murillo (Choctaw, Oklahoma) has been CEO for the last five years at Native Health, aka Native American Community Health Center, Inc. Since the organization started in 1978 as a small community nursing program, it has grown to become a provider of health care and ancillary services to off-reservation urban Native Americans living in Maricopa County. Native Health and its associated Community Health Center provide services to more than 17,000 individuals per year.
Murillo, who also functions as Regional Director of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, said Read It and Eat is just one of the many programs that service the off-reservation indigenous community in urban Phoenix.
“Our mission is to provide holistic, patient-centered, culturally-sensitive health and wellness services in the tradition of our Native American heritage, and this program was the result of a couple areas of concern for us, encouraging both literacy and healthy eating,” Murillo said. “Watching a parent and child working together is heartwarming as they learn healthier ways to cook. They learn about healthy food ingredients before they actually cook them, then sit down and enjoy a meal while reading a book together. It’s another good example of discovering a need and responding creatively to it.”