Hackensack, NJ -- Greater Bergen Community Action (GBCA) understands that nutrition plays a key role in a person’s overall well-being, and is a cause for concern among the low-income individuals it serves. Accordingly, GBCA’s Food and Nutrition Department includes two Registered Dietitians, who by definition are experts on diet and nutrition working to alter regimens based on medical conditions and individual needs – but at GBCA, the work is much more extensive.
For Registered Dietitians, Audra Tamayo, Associate Director of Food Services at GBCA Head Start, and Christine Boi, Supervisor of Food Services at GBCA Head Start, no two days are alike. And though they’re individually met with new challenges each day, the camaraderie between the two reflects their shared passion for nutrition, and their desire to assist and educate the families of GBCA Head Start. When sharing the details of their work, Audra and Christine are usually in agreement about views on their roles in the program, the importance of extending education to not only the children, but to the entire family, and their favorite parts of it all.
“I think my favorite part of the job is really just how many people we’re able to affect on a daily basis. Not only are we working with the children and their families, but it’s their extended families, it’s all of our employees that work in the kitchen. I feel like in this position we can feel like we’re making changes – we’re making a difference in people’s lives.” Audra noted.
“And every day I feel like we make a difference in somebody’s life. Small steps for big changes: and we see that every day,” Christine concluded.
While Audra and Christine work diligently towards attaining positive results and seeing changes, they were open about challenges they face along with way, as Audra recalled a specific situation with a child who had many allergies, and whose mom just wanted him to be a kid and have all of the same food his siblings and classmates were having.
“I did a lot of research looking for different products, where to buy them and how much they cost. He loves ice cream and pizza, so I really tried to get those for him. And that’s the benefit of having a dietitian, so you have somebody to turn to who knows the products and the labels and how to read them. Especially if English is not your first language.”
Speaking English as a second language is common among GBCA Head Start parents, who are able to communicate with Audra, Christine and GBCA Head Start staff through an on-site interpreter. Addressing dietary challenges and accommodating various needs like these are what Audra and Christine believe makes GBCA Head Start unique.
“A very unique part of the program is how we address allergies. At other preschools, the families are able to bring in the food for their children, and they may not always know how to address the different allergens that are in the food. And I think what’s great with our program is not only do we provide the children an allergy free meal, but we also educate the parents on how to keep those allergens out of the child’s diet,” said Audra.
At GBCA Head Start, all students eat nutritious, USDA approved meals from a menu prepared by Audra and Christine, who have also made 31 specialized menus for students with dietary restrictions due to allergies or cultural needs.
The federally-funded program serves low-income infant, toddler, and preschool children, making poverty prevalent among their families. This commonality brings forth another issue: the relationship between poverty and nutrition, which Audra and Christine agree influence one another. Audra noted:
“I think people have always kind of associated poverty and nutrition in people being under-weight. I think the tables are kind of turning now; you see more over-weight, obesity and comorbidities with people that are living in poverty.”
“I think the price of those items along with the availability of those items in walking distance to where they live is really contributing to them deciding on those foods more often. But also, sometimes those are the foods that you’re craving when you’re having a hardship.” Christine added.
The two agreed that situations like these are what makes their roles so important.
“Helping people realize you can eat healthy on a budget,” Audra said as a means of addressing the issue. “That’s where we come in and really try to educate the families on better choices,” Christine added.
Transitioning to a healthier lifestyle isn’t always easy for Head Start families, which the two dietitians believe has a lot to do with incorporating healthy habits early in children’s lives, especially to overcome experiences like “food jag,” a term Audra explains as an eating behavior where children get stuck on a particular type of food(s) for a significant period of time.
While Audra and Christine provide nutrition workshops and classes for parents, as well as for expected moms whose babies will be coming into the program, the two also lead by example, helping to nurture Head Start children by introducing them to healthy food in a hands-on, fun way.
“So this year, we’ve actually started a new partnership with a group called Common Market, and we’ve been getting locally sourced produce, and feature it each month. Not only do we get to have the produce but we get to show the kids a picture of the farmer and where it came from,” Audra explained.
Audra and Christine are continuously coming up with new ways to engage Head Start children and their families, and on the calendar this year among daily activities are 4 workshops: Eating on a Budget; Healthy Recipes; Healthy Teeth, Healthy Body; and Rethink your Drink.
In GBCA’s fight against poverty, Christine and Audra’s work is essential to generating positive impact. In order to mitigate the persistent condition of poverty, we must address the issues plaguing our communities that inevitably effect our children and their families. It is part of this work that GBCA’s Registered Dietitians have taken on, materialized through various workshops, specialized and general menu preparations, and nutritional insights that helps GBCA Head Start programs foster a nurturing environment for all its children and their families, to reduce the continuation of poverty, one case at a time.
ABOUT GREATER BERGEN COMMUNITY ACTION
Bergen Community Action (GBCA) is a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit Community Action Agency. Established in 1967, Greater Bergen is part of a nationwide network of poverty-fighting enterprises which were established as part of the nation’s effort to address the intractable and persistent problem of poverty in America. For more information about GBCA, go to www.greaterbergen.org.