Nutrition Efforts Reaching the Disability Community

September 8, 2017

The Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) continues its health efforts with "Nutrition is for Everyone" for a second year, made possible by a grant from the Walmart Foundation. Five AUCD-member centers will implement a one-year project (2017-2018) providing nutrition education for an estimated 25,000 people with disabilities living in Arkansas (AR), Louisiana (LA), Mississippi (MS), Oklahoma (OK), and Tennessee (TN). Based on available public health data, these states are areas where people with disabilities are least likely to be consuming fruits and vegetables and, therefore, in the most need for nutrition education and support.

The five AUCD members working on this program are:

  1. Partners for Inclusive Communities at University of Arkansas, Little Rock, AR
  2. Human Development Center at Louisiana State University, New Orleans, LA
  3. Institute for Disability Studies, Hattiesburg, MS
  4. Center for Learning and Leadership at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK
  5. Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, TN

AUCD staff standing with with Nutrition ambassadors."We desire to see nutritional literacy improve for all segments of society and are proud to be involved in helping to reach persons with disabilities with information that will help them make healthier choices" stated Walmart Foundation representative.  

"People with disabilities are not often included in typical nutrition efforts. 'Nutrition is for Everyone'  includes the disability community in all nutrition outreach and education efforts," said Dr. Adriane Griffen, director of public health for AUCD. "With this investment, we can make a significant impact on health and wellness for people with disabilities."

Beginning as a pilot in FY 2016-2017, four AUCD centers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Tennessee surpassed outreach goals with creative efforts such as in-person cooking classes, social media, outreach, and including disability advocates in nutrition training. The four states each had a local Nutrition Ambassador with varying levels of nutrition and disability knowledge and expertise, and each Nutrition Ambassador had four or five Deputy Ambassadors across their state to help with the nutrition education efforts. Nutrition Ambassadors and Deputy Ambassadors organized leadership and nutrition education events for people with disabilities and their friends, family, and the community. They provided practical solutions to common barriers of proper nutrition including cost, access to fruits and vegetables, and basic knowledge of healthy foods. The Ambassadors also partnered with local, state and regional organizations and stakeholders to create and support opportunities for policy change and advocacy.

AUCD provided ongoing tAUCD staff standing with with Nutrition ambassadors.raining, technical assistance, oversight, and increased outreach at the national level. Program updates, success stories, and resources were disseminated via a monthly Nutrition is for Everyone newsletter and social media. Nutrition and disability experts from the Institute on Disability and Human Development, AUCD's member center at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), served as consultant advisors, sharing lessons learned from "Health Matters," a program that builds capacity for organizations across the country to implement health promotion programs for people with developmental disabilities. AUCD and UIC consultant's role will continue in year two with the five implementing states.  

With the support of AUCD, "Nutrition is for Everyone" reached over 85,000 individuals in the disability community across the country during this first-year pilot period.  Further work with the state Nutrition Ambassadors will help support nutrition inclusion efforts. Their efforts will continue to impact nutrition behaviors, ultimately decreasing the rate of obesity for people with disabilities. The growing network of nutrition advocates and educators will also become a part of increasing the overall health of people with disabilities, providing further sustainability and success of the project.

The continued success of "Nutrition is for Everyone" in year two will in part be the result of the foundational work done in the pilot states. Their culturally appropriate and multi-pronged approaches were responsive to the needs of their state and communities, and designed to support sustainability. Some of efforts are highlighted below and in, "Nutrition is for Everyone: Year in Review."

Arkansas (AR)

A group of individuals preparing food at a class. Arkansas hosted several training events for caregivers, professionals, people with disabilities, community members, and families of people with disabilities. They hosted four adapted Cooking Matters classes throughout the state. During these six-week classes, they taught and shared recipes appropriate and relatable for those with intellectual and physical disabilities, and introduced many new skills (using mixing tools, measuring ingredients, chopping, etc.) that the participants had never experienced.

AR established long lasting partnerships with Special Olympics of Arkansas, Pathfinders facilities, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Health and Disabilities, Arkansas Obesity Coalition, and many more. They also developed partnerships with local churches, libraries, community centers, and stores (Walmart, Kroger, Lowes, Dollar Tree, Sam's Club, etc.), that provided their program with donations, class facilities, and community support/advertisement. In fact, they gained funding/support from First United Methodist Church in Little Rock and the AR Hunger Relief Alliance to implement a community garden at a live-in facility for Persons with Disabilities, to allow those who cannot leave the facility access to fresh produce.

They were featured on a local/national TV station, AETN, segment which can be viewed here.

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Louisiana (LA)

People standing in line serving themselves food.The LA Nutrition Ambassador implemented an adapted Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters curriculum, a six-week cooking and nutrition program that taught participants to shop and eat healthfully on a budget. They tailored the curriculum to meet the unique needs of their intended audience with increased visuals and emphasis on skills for independence (e.g. safe food handling, knife skills). Over the course of the year, LA implemented four adapted Cooking Matters courses across the state for a diverse audience, including individuals with disabilities and their family, friends, and support workers. Each six-week course consisted of weekly two hour classes. Participants learned about a number of nutrition-related topics including MyPlate, choosing whole grains, and how to eat enough fruits and vegetables every day. They also prepared healthy recipes.

In addition to the Cooking Matters courses, LA hosted training events with students, community members, and professionals to offer nutrition education to their target population. Further, some Deputies continue to act as nutrition advocates in their communities; presenting at community meetings for local service providers. The LA program also developed relationships with Families Helping Families, Mia's Educational and Employment Agency, Superior Options of LA, ARC of Greater New Orleans, Second Harvest Food Bank and the Metropolitan Human Services District (MHSD).

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Oklahoma (OK)

3 individuals standing at a table with vegetables. Nutrition is for Everyone OK partnered with Oklahoma Self-Advocacy Network (OKSAN) to create a healthy living module, "Taking Control of Your Health," for their Self-Advocate Leadership Training (SALT) curriculum.  Taking Control of Your Health was created by and for self-advocates, and is presented by self-advocates to Oklahoma People First (OPF) chapters across Oklahoma and other interested community members and organizations.

OK also partnered with Hispanic and Latino support groups for families who have children with disabilities to collect healthful recipes that have been successful in getting their children to eat healthily. The collected recipes were transformed into handouts and/or YouTube Cooking videos. A series of nutrition education classes were presented in Spanish at Integris Southwest Medical Center and Variety Care, both of which are health care clinics that offer services to Hispanic families. These classes were offered to families who have children with disabilities and open to the general public.

OK Deputy Ambassadors also conducted a radio interview with a local Hispanic station, Radio Restauracion el monte de los olivos, and were interviewed by a Hispanic TV channel, Telemundo, to promote "Nutrition is for Everyone" and nutrition education. In addition, Deputy Ambassadors were interviewed by a local Hispanic newspaper. Read their interview here.

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Tennessee (TN)

Image of man with beard standing in front of a aisle of groceries The Nutrition Ambassador held a number of awareness and educational events, including to 1) the Tennessee Disability Coalition; 2) the Memphis Down Syndrome self-advocates; and 3) the MidSouth Autism Conference Association as a breakout session. In each case, the Ambassador made connections for future education/training offerings. The Nutrition Ambassador was also accepted as a presenter for the Tennessee Disability MegaConference, where she shared a table vendor space with the Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, to specifically talk about "Nutrition is for Everyone."

In addition, TN developed a relationship/partnership with the Post-Secondary Education (PSE) programs in TN, and connected with the dietetic programs at the same or close by universities to provide nutrition education and training. The Nutrition Ambassador helped develop a relationship between the undergraduate dietetic program at the University of Memphis and the Post-Secondary Education Program, TigerLife. The TigerLife curriculum was amended to include Ambassadors teaching students about fruits, vegetables, food groups, classes of nutrients, MyPlate - which encourages that half the plate be filled with fruits and vegetables, and providing opportunities to sample new foods. They successfully completed four classes and one follow-up class with TigerLife.

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Success Stories

Ambassadors also collected and shared testimonies/stories from participants. The stories strongly suggest that "Nutrition is for Everyone" is impacting their lives in a wonderfully positive way and participants are learning skills that will aid in healthy living throughout their lifetime. Stories include:

"I love the cooking class. I have tried new vegetables that I thought I didn't like before. I have become the best chef. I have been making my recipes at therapy to eat again and share with my therapists." -Bella, nutrition education participant

"I really enjoyed the Cooking Matters classes.  I was able to learn more about myself as a teacher.  It's helped me to be a more prepared in the kitchen at home with my Mom and even cook more of my own food instead of letting her (Mom) do it for me."- Heather, Deputy Ambassador

  • Heather enjoys cooking tasty meals at home with her mother, Debra, and is excited to learn even more recipes to share at home and with others. Heather is most excited about this opportunity to teach the Cooking Matters adapted classes because it allows her to give back. She is very enthusiastic about teaching and learning with her peers.

"I take the recipes home and make them with my grandson. He also brought a recipe home to his mom and she cooked it for all the kids. They said it was the best meal she ever made." - Deniece, nutrition education participant

"Nutrition is for Everyone impacted both my life and my family's life, by revealing that we had very bad eating habits. We have now made simple changes in our eating habits that have helped to change our lives. The nutrition education classes provided advice that was simple to understand and implement. The nutrition education classes taught us how to eat healthy, how to eat healthy on a budget, how to read a nutrition facts label and provided resources to help make the best decisions for our diet. I am a mother of a child with a disability. It is often difficult to get him to eat healthy foods. Nutrition is for Everyone has helped me introduce new foods to my children in a fun and easy way. My family and I have also established a daily exercise routine, which has helped my husband to lose weight. The nutrition education classes taught me how to live a more healthful life. I hope this testimony will encourage others to change their eating habits because now I can make better choices for me and my family. Thank you, Nutrition is for Everyone!" - Laura Lira

For More Information

Tanisha Clarke, MPH
Senior Program Manager, Disability and Public Health
Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD)
[email protected] 

"Nutrition is for Everyone" builds on AUCD's Public Health is for Everyone program, which offers resources for public health professionals to create programs for whole communities, including people with disabilities.

Join the AUCD Nutrition4All listserv

Join the listserv to receive the monthly Nutrition is for Everyone newsletter. This is also a discussion list to facilitate communication on strategies to include people living with disabilities in nutrition efforts and to include nutrition in disability and health efforts. To subscribe to this listserv, email Tanisha Clarke.