Conference Initiative Focuses on Hunger, Nutrition

By Stan Friedman

TAMPA, FL (February 23, 2012) – The Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church is working with the United States Department of Agriculture to encourage Hispanics, who suffer high rates of obesity, to eat healthier diets.

According to the U.S. Government, 25 percent of Hispanic families are at risk for hunger. Roughly one-third of American children are overweight or obese, putting the same proportion at risk for diabetes. The rate in Latino communities reaches nearly 40 percent.

Walter Contreras, director of outreach and Hispanic church planting, provided input to “La Mesa completa” (The whole table), a kit that provides education and information for churches and faith-based agencies to tap into resources available to deal with the issue of hunger and nutrition.

The kit also includes information about government programs available to Hispanics such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to the document, many Hispanics don’t participate in programs for fear of having their immigration status questioned, but most of the assistance programs do not question how they entered the country.

Another contributing factor is the lack of access to healthy foods in many areas that makes providing proper meals difficult, according to the USDA. Due to the dearth of full-service grocery stores, many families must purchase food from small markets and convenience stores. The USDA says it is working to increase the supply of healthy foods in underserved communities.

Contreras says it is important for the PSWC to participate in the outreach. He notes that 34 of the conference’s churches are Hispanic – the largest number of any conference – and 50 percent are multiethnic. “We have the responsibility of serving our churches in a relevant way by providing the capacity and the resources they need the most,” says Contreras.

Connecting with the national campaign is one way of providing those resources. MiPlato is part of the national “Let’s Move!” fitness effort.

“The power of collaboration and developing a strategic alliance is crucial for our conference as we confront the moral challenges that our people are facing in the area of hunger and nutrition,” Contreras says.

In addition to meeting the moral challenge, the programs and the work of partners makes economic sense, according to the USDA: every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generates up to nine dollars in total economic activity, families receiving benefits spend more money on food than other low-income households, and the additional spending helps create jobs.

Earlier this month, Contreras participated in a ceremony at which Michelle Obama announced that Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned U.S. food company, is committing resources to MiPlato. Materials include brochures, posters, cookbooks, and educational materials for students in fourth through sixth grades. In addition to schools, the resources will be distributed through local churches as well as food pantries and registered dieticians.

The Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which is helping lead the MiPlato initiative, invited Contreras to participate in the Tampa event. Working with faith communities is a critical component of the campaign, organizers say. For example, The National Latino Evangelical Coalition will distribute materials at its Nuestro Futuro rallies across the country.

The USDA also has launched a contest for faith-based organizations to submit videos about how they are fighting hunger.

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