PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In Aroostook County, approximately 64 percent of the population was found to be either overweight or obese, according to statistics provided by the Healthy Maine Partnership.
Public and community health agencies across the region have been trying to reduce that figure by encouraging more people to exercise and eat healthier. To try and focus the effort on a more local level, an organization that helps individuals and families achieve economic independence will soon be using a grant from the Walmart Foundation to conduct a new program of its own.
The Aroostook County Action Program received a $25,000 grant to establish a hands-on educational program for adult Women Infant and Children, or WIC, clients and other low-income individuals. The money will be used to improve nutrition and increase healthy eating habits and will be offered at the Presque Isle and Houlton Walmart stores. The project will be administered by ACAP’s Healthy Aroostook Program.
Goals of the project are to increase daily servings of fruits and vegetables consumed, improve self-reported healthy eating habits, and improve the understanding of nutrition by program participants. These goals will be accomplished through hands-on nutrition education both in a classroom setting and in Walmart stores for participants to learn to read labels for improved nutrition and to stretch food dollars.
Kimberly Smith, resource developer for ACAP, said Wednesday that program officials came up with the idea for the initiative after it became apparent that most clients in the program struggle to make nutritious choices at the grocery store.
“Clients will go shopping and buy the food that is on sale instead of buying the food with the higher nutritional value,” she said. “We want to teach people that they can find foods out there that are affordable and nutritious, and also help them learn how to prepare food so it’s a bit more healthy.”
Smith said ACAP serves approximately 800 clients across The County.
Participants can sign up to take part in classes that will be offered in Houlton and Presque Isle. The classes will include grocery store tours educating participants on how to read labels for better nutrition, stretching the food dollar and choosing items with better nutritional value, a class on what food groups should be included in each meal, and a slow-cooker cooking class.
Smith said participants who attend all four classes will receive a voucher that can be redeemed at Walmart for a slow cooker and the ingredients used in the cooking class. A gas or child care voucher will also be provided as an incentive to encourage greater participation.
Smith said obesity has been a topic broached by more and more people across the country, especially since schools are cutting back on physical education and health classes.
“I think that we just aren’t seeing the knowledge about nutrition out there because of the cutbacks in education,” she said Wednesday. “In the past two decades, a lot of schools have stopped offering home economics classes, and that is where most kids learned to cook and about nutrition and how to make healthier meals. I think it’s had an impact.”
Smith said that if the data shows a positive effect once the six-month-long project is over, ACAP will likely see long-term funding to offer it on a regular basis.