Fried chicken, catfish, rib tips, onion rings, french fries. Drive down any main thoroughfare in Austin, and the streets are cluttered with fast food restaurants, chicken and rib take-outs, and corner candy shops masquerading as grocery stores.

African Americans love to eat great-tasting food, but excessive consumption of too many fried, processed foods decreases our overall health and well-being. The Westside Health Authority (WHA) is seeking to transform the eating and nutritional habits of Austin residents one body, one spirit, and one meal at a time through its Healthy Lifestyles initiative. Through community outreach, fitness classes, medical and nutrition seminars, and group support meetings, Healthy Lifestyles provides nutritional education and awareness about ways in which nutrition can improve health across generations–from adolescents to seniors.

Free monthly nutrition and medical sessions, and support groups are held at the Austin Wellness Center (4800 W. Chicago Ave.) on the benefits of nutrition related to conditions such as lead poisoning, kidney health, diabetes, and heart disease. Nutrition sessions focus on the link between good health and good eating habits by teaching participants how to prepare recipes that are healthy and satisfy cultural tastebuds, with samples of meals such as vegetarian chili, sesame seed salads, and turkey burgers provided at the sessions.

Small support groups meet weekly so that neighbors can connect with each other by sharing stories, specific health issues, and help each other maintain healthy eating habits.

For decades, chronic diseases have plagued the Austin community with high rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, hypertension, and lead exposure. In 2001, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH):

? 1,950 Austin residents were hospitalized for heart disease;

? 269 were hospitalized for complications due to diabetes;

? the leading causes of death were attributed to cancer (220 residents); stroke (49 residents), and chronic respiratory disease (31 residents). Additionally, Chicago has the highest percentage of lead-poisoned children in the country (93%), with the Austin community ranked first in lead exposure due to lead-based paint in old housing.

To combat these health issues, the Healthy Lifestyles project started with outreach on 68 neighborhood blocks in Every Block a Village (WHA’s community organizing arm), with the primary focus on African-American men. Consistent community outreach continues to propel Healthy Lifestyles–neighborhood outreach has increased to 100 blocks, which now includes seniors, women and children. So far this year, over 800 contacts have been made through presentations at community meetings and events, neighborhood groups and schools.

Nearly 300 community residents are enrolled in Healthy Lifestyles. Weekly fitness classes, held at the Austin YMCA, 501 North Central, offer aerobics and muscle strengthening workouts. In addition, community hospitals and clinics refer their patients in need of nutrition counseling and exercise. Each month, outreach is conducted at the Austin/Cook County Health Center during its diabetes sessions. Sessions are held to teach parents how to prepare nutritious, healthy meals for children at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases that are seen far too often in the Austin community.

In addition, WHA’s Junior Healthy Lifestyles program provides nutrition education to youth through its after-school program and teen programs. This is especially important because teens and children consume excessive amounts of junk food with an accompanying rise in childhood obesity. Recent nutrition information events included workshops with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a “Lights On” after-school event where over 200 youngsters received nutritional information, and a “Get the Lead Out Walk” that attracted nearly 100 youth and adults and provided health and nutrition tips to address lead exposure.

With the kick-off of “The Biggest Winner” contest scheduled for April 2005, Healthy Lifestyles seeks to catapult nutrition and fitness to a broader audience in Austin. Ten teams will compete to lose the most weight. Points are awarded for attending the Healthy Lifestyles nutrition and medical sessions, and fitness classes.

Currently, five teams comprised of community residents have registered to compete. WHA’s team was the pilot model for the contest, and 20 staff members participated. One staff member lost 14 pounds over a 6-week period through exercise, healthy eating, and a commitment to re-evaluate the way we look at eating. The entrance fee is $25 per individual, and “The Biggest Winner” team will receive a cash prize of $500.

Healthy Lifestyle programs are supported with grants from the Michael Reese Health Trust, VNA Foundation and Polk Bros. Foundation, and a generous grant from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). For more information on joining Healthy Lifestyles and “The Biggest Winner” contest, please contact the Healthy Lifestyles staff at 773/378-5034 ext. 11.