North Portland HEAL Coalition celebrates six years of success

by Melanie Davis
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Active Latino parents make the difference

By Lillian Shirley, BSN, MPH, MPA, Multnomah County Health Department Director
  As Margarita Aguilar walks down the hall at César Chávez School in North Portland, the students and teachers lining up for lunch greet her. Some offer high fives. She stops to give a quick hug and a kiss to one of the students. The happy recipient is her youngest child, a kindergartener. Aguilar is a familiar sight around César Chávez School. In addition to her kindergartener, she has three other children who are in second, fifth and seventh grades at the school. She is also a key activist in the North Portland Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Coalition that has been working for six years to make the school and surrounding community healthier. Aguilar first learned about the HEAL Coalition in 2006 when she took a healthy cooking class offered at the school through HEAL. The class, taught in Spanish, showed her how to steam vegetables instead of frying them, make natural low-fat dressings, and prepare salmon and healthy turkey recipes among other things. More importantly though, the class introduced her to the work of the HEAL Coalition, and she met other parents interested in making healthy changes at the school. “It was wonderful,†she says. “At first I thought, ‘How can I help? Just me?’ But I learned that I could recruit other people and it made things possible. Teamwork actually accomplished things.†In December, Aguilar and other HEAL parents celebrated six years of healthy eating and active living changes at the school including:
  • Spanish-language healthy cooking classes.
  • New bike racks at the school, and walking and biking improvements around the school.
  • A walking and biking curriculum for students in the second and fifth grades and a biking curriculum for parents.
  • A school plot in the Portsmouth Community Garden and its harvest that is divided among school families.
  • A Harvest of the Month program in the cafeteria where trained Smart Eating parent coaches urge students to try new, local fruits and vegetables.
  • Walking School Buses that encourage physical activity.
The coalition partnered with César Chávez K-8 School in part because of the racial, ethnic, and income mix at the school. Currently, the student population is largely made up of Hispanic (62.1 percent) and African American (14.7 percent) children. In addition, more than 80 percent of students are enrolled in the free or reduced-price meal program. Hispanic, African American, and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by obesity and chronic disease. Healthy eating and active living can help prevent obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Aguilar started with the cooking class, but moved on to volunteer for many different HEAL projects including leading a Walking School Bus. Walking School Bus students meet about a mile from the school and walk to school together accompanied by trained parent volunteers. Aguilar is a big fan of these “buses†that sometimes include more than 30 kids and adults. “Kids are motivated to get up earlier and they seem more energized by the time they get to school. They arrive at school ready to learn.†She adds that the walk is good for her also. “All the stress goes away and your mind clears. It’s biological.†Aguilar is most pleased and surprised by her work with neighborhood convenience stores. In 2010, she and other HEAL parents surveyed Latino stores and interviewed store owners about the availability of healthy choices. That work laid the foundation for the Multnomah County Health Department’s Healthy Retail Initiative, a project to develop a network of neighborhood-based stores that offer affordable, culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables. Aguilar recently visited El Compadre Market on N. Lombard St. Like most stores, it has a large selection of candy and other treats near the cash register. But nearer this register was a basket of fresh mangos. When her son chose a mango for a treat, the cashier motioned to the basket and told her, “This is your work.†Owners of other stores are also quick to show her their new equipment and displays of fresh produce. “They say, ‘We got this because of you’,†Aguilar says. She adds that it makes her feel good to know she not only helped the school, but she helped the larger community. For the last two years, the coalition has been supported by Ben Escalante, a community health worker with the Multnomah County Health Department. Escalante says that it is parents like Aguilar who provided the momentum for the HEAL Coalition. “It’s really parents that drove these changes. They identified community needs and prioritized solutions,†he says. “The health department and other organizations can provide support and make connections for them, but it is really the community coming together that makes changes like this happen.†The HEAL Coalition was funded initially by the Northwest Health Foundation and most recently by the Multnomah County Health Department through a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant. There are many partners in the work including Portland Safe Routes to School, Multnomah County SUN Community Schools, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services, Portland Parks and Recreation, and the OSU Extension Service. “I am so thankful for HEAL, because I have learned so many things,†says Aguilar, adding that what she’s learned helps her husband and her kids too. “My kids are more motivated, because they see me being more motivated. That’s the true learning. Even though it is a school-based program, these things can be practiced at home.â€
Learn more about the North Portland HEAL Coalition in their report available in both English and Spanish at