Without enough money to buy nutritious food, many families living in poverty resort to buying food that is inexpensive, fattening and highly processed — fostering poor eating habits that can lead to obesity and illnesses, including cancer.
"Helping students and their families connect good food choices to good health is about changing — even saving — lives," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees health issues for the statewide union.
The American Cancer Society, which calls poverty "one of the most potent carcinogens," reports that an estimated 1 out of every 3 cancer deaths in the United States is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition and physical inactivity. Excess body weight seems to have the strongest impact, contributing to as many as 1 in 5 of all cancer-related deaths, including those from kidney, pancreas, gall bladder and liver cancers.
Nine years ago the union launched its 24/7 Let's Go! healthy lifestyles program. Now NYSUT is expanding its steadfast commitment to promoting health and nutrition by teaming up with the ACS, local unions, cancer prevention groups, hospitals, grocery stores and nutritionists to bring a new Healthy Living project to high-needs New York schools and communities across the state.
The program was launched in December in Poughkeepsie, a small Dutchess County city on the Hudson River, where 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Poughkeepsie Public School Teachers Association President Debra Kardas said cases of morbid obesity are numerous among students and staff in this struggling community. The entire school district qualifies for free breakfast and lunch, a key poverty indicator.
The inaugural Healthy Living headline event provided 50 families with a nutritious meal and healthy groceries to take home. The meal was served at Vassar Brothers Medical Center after families visited booths to learn about nutrition and health.
"We're teaching people that the best way to fight cancer is to prevent it," said Kardas. Five more events involving wellness, health screenings, and cancer screenings are planned this school year in Poughkeepsie.
NYSUT and its partners are launching Healthy Living programs in Brentwood in Suffolk County, Long Island, and in Binghamton in Broome County, and building momentum for similar programs in struggling communities across the state.
People who live in poverty tend to live greater distances from thriving supermarkets, said Lee Cutler, NYSUT's secretary-treasurer, who oversees social justice efforts for the union. "They often do not have transportation, so they rely on the limited offerings at corner markets, buying more processed foods and sugary drinks," he said.
Poughkeepsie students were educated about healthy swaps, such as water for soda, and given pedometers that hook on a belt so they can count their steps and log activities.
"When my kids don't eat, they ask 'Do you have any food?'" said art teacher Debby Brooks. "Or they put their head down and sleep."
Indeed, numerous studies show that hunger and food insecurity impair a student's ability to learn. Well-nourished students, on the other hand, have a greater ability to focus, engage and remember.
Troy TA President Seth Cohen calls hunger a "huge issue" in his district. Like Poughkeepsie, every student in the Troy district is qualified to receive free lunch through a federal grant.
Cohen, an earth science teacher, coordinates the Produce Project through the Capital District Community Garden.
Students involved with the community project help tend to two greenhouses and two acres where vegetables are grown. The produce is sold to restaurants and at local farmers' markets. Students are paid a stipend and given fresh produce to take home. They also take part in cooking lessons and community potluck dinners.
Cohen says the students learn job responsibilities, community interaction and healthy eating habits, all skills they'll need when they graduate and are "off on their own."