Eat Smart Program Encourages Healthy Eating for Minority and Low-Income Populations in Washington, D.C.

By Avi Carter

Sixty percent of deaths in Washington, D.C., are linked to diet-related illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and hypertension. African Americans, Latinos, women, and low-income families are disproportionately affected by these illnesses. The Vegetarian Society of the District of Columbia (VSDC), a non-profit organization founded in 1927, developed the Eat Smart Program to address the health disparities of these populations.

The Eat Smart Program was begun in 2004 to educate these populations about how they can help prevent some life-threatening illnesses by following a plant-based diet, reducing their consumption of processed foods, and being physically active. Merlene Vassall, VSDC’s executive director at the time, designed the course outline. An eight-person advisory panel that includes medical doctors, dietitians, nutritionists, and a graduate of the Eat Smart Program provide guidance about the program’s course material.

Eat Smart provides nutrition, cooking, shopping, and ‘Eating Out Healthfully’ classes to its students. The participants learn about increasing their fruit and vegetable intake and decreasing their animal product, salt, and fat consumption. They also learn more about the connection between diet and health and how to choose healthful foods, read and interpret food labels, and get the most and best for their money. During hands-on class sessions, the students participate in vegan potlucks and fitness classes (usually yoga), visit vegetarian restaurants, and tour a local food co-op.

Classes last for two hours and are offered once a week for nine weeks. For convenience, the Eat Smart classes are provided at three locations throughout D.C. Information about the program is sent to churches and community centers in the neighborhoods where the classes are taught. Also, program staff members visit local centers to answer questions and make presentations and to walk through the neighborhoods near the classes, handing out flyers and meeting the locals.

The students who successfully finish the program participate in a graduation. During this ceremony, they receive certificates recognizing their completion of the program, get a chance to meet students from other classes, and enjoy delicious and healthy vegan food.

The Eat Smart Program has proven very successful. Since it started in 2004, approximately 225 students have graduated. Participants take a pre-test about their knowledge of the basics of health and nutrition at the beginning of the class, which is compared to the post-test they take after they complete it. In a recent session, 96 percent of the students reported an increase in their knowledge of the basics of food and nutrition, 96 percent stated their dietary choices improved, and 85 percent indicated their family’s dietary choices improved. A few students even became vegan because of the class.

In November 2007, the Eat Smart Program completed its fifth round of classes with David Herring, MS, a full-time nutritionist, as the director. This round of the Eat Smart Program was funded by the Consumer Health Foundation and was offered at little to no cost to the students.

Avi Carter wrote this article during a dietetic internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.