CANFIT Wants to Improve the Health of all America’s Youth

by Sarah Henry on October 20, 2011 · 26 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,food security,kids & food

One of CANFIT's programs is the MO Project which uses media and technology to encourage youth to advocate for nutrition and physical activity issues in their schools and community. Photo: CANFIT

Arnell Hinkle, the founding executive director of CANFIT (which stands for Communities, Adolescents, Nutrition, and Fitness) may be based in downtown Berkeley, but her work to improve the lives of low-income youth of color takes her across the country and around the globe.

She has been involved in development projects in India, Ecuador and Scotland, and spent last year on a Fullbright public policy fellowship in Wellington, New Zealand working with Maori and Pacific Island groups.

A kind of community food coach for young folk, the registered dietician who holds a masters in public health has worked as a restaurant chef, organic farmer, and as a project coordinator of the Hunger and Chronic Disease Prevention Program at the Contra Costa County Health Services Department.

CANFIT was founded in 1993 as the result of a class-action suit that charged the company General Foods with fraudulent, misleading, and deceptive advertising in marketing sugary cereals to children. Initially the small nonprofit addressed concerns of teens only in California, working on policy matters such as after-school physical activity and snack guidelines for the Department of Education. Berkeley Youth Alternatives was one of the first local groups assisted by the health promotion program.

Now, CANFIT offers training and technical assistance to help communities across the nation. Its goal: preventing obesity and other chronic lifestyle diseases by improving access to safe, affordable, culturally appropriate, and healthy food. It also focuses on physical activity after school for low-income adolescent youth in urban or rural settings, and ethnic-specific organizations.

Hinkle, who jokingly describes herself as ageless, lives in South Berkeley with her husband. She has received numerous awards for her work, including from the Rockefeller and Robert Wood Johnson foundations and the American Public Health Association. In 2009-2010 she was an IATP Food and Community Fellow.

How do you relate to youth?

I come from a similar background, so I can talk from my experience, growing up poor in St. Louis, eating overcooked vegetables and meat at every meal — a very Midwestern diet.  And then I talk about learning about health and how I came to be doing what I’m doing and why I do it.

I also talk about how your food is a part of who you are but it doesn’t have to define you. Sometimes people will say I won’t eat that because that’s “white people” food — say, something like the sprouts in this sandwich — and you have to kind of tear that apart: why is it that you have that perception?

We work on getting youth to understand that if they eat a more nutrient-rich diet they’ll feel more satisfied. At the same time we recognize real concerns, like that fast food places may be the safest place in a community for youth to hang out.

How did you get into this line of work?

As a teen, I was part of an after-school program, where I met other kids from around the city, and one of my friends was a vegetarian. I must have been about 14, and I remember thinking: okay, there are other ways of eating.

My mom worked so I often had to start the family meal. I did a lot of experimenting with cooking, baking, trying different foods. I liked to cook. I ended up getting a scholarship to Princeton and so I went away to school and as  a way to earn money I started catering events. And when I got out of school I realized I needed a skill. I had a great education but no skill.

So I applied to a culinary school in Boston but, in the meantime, a friend took me to Martha’s Vineyard and I fell in love with the place and ended up getting a summer job at this old hotel that had a European-trained chef and he took me on as an apprentice. I figured I’d learn more from this chef than I would at culinary school so I stayed through the winter and then for another three years after that working at different places.

I worked cheffing for about seven years, catering, restaurants, and at a retreat center. It was when I started growing things — and working with the soil — that I realized a lot of what I was serving people, cream, butter, and meat, wasn’t very good for them. That’s when my interest in nutrition began.

A CANFIT after-school wellness learning community program in Oakland in May this year. Photo: CANFIT

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work and the biggest challenge?

That’s easy: the best part is going into communities, making relationships, and seeing the light bulb go on around change and how it can improve individual and community health. The toughest part: funding. Now, we get smaller amounts of money for shorter amounts of times with a lot more guidelines attached to it.

Does being in Berkeley help or hinder what you do?

Well personally, it’s great because I live a mile from my job, so I get to walk to work. And it’s a great place to live. But we haven’t worked on a project here in years. Sometimes coming from here is a detriment because so often when people hear Berkeley they think: you have it all made and you have no issues as far as food is concerned.

Any projects of note you’d like to mention?

We work with an American Indian reservation community in Arizona who are trying to return to their traditional foods, both growing them and having them served in their schools and senior centers, foods like corn, beans, desert plants. They even opened their own cafe.

Our Mo Project, a contest for youth who shoot their own 90 second PSAs on bringing about healthy change in their communities, is pretty inspiring.

Now that we have adolescents’ attention and have made progress getting them plugged into food and community health, we’re working on how we can get youth to become the next generation of leaders on these issues. We’re developing a guide on food-system careers for low-income youth of color.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and republished on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

Garden Teacher Kim Allen Offers Youth Space to Grow
Joy Moore: Community Food Reformer
Urban Youth on Growing and Selling Good Food
Ten Teens Rocking the Food Revolution Scene
Berkeley Bites: Tanya Henderson


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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

NoPotCooking October 20, 2011 at 10:03 am

What a great program. I am particularly interested in the program on the reservation — that strikes me as a wonderful idea, leveraging a culture’s natural foods to promote healthy eating.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Giveaway! The Parchment Paper Cookbook


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I know what you mean NPC. It just makes sense, doesn’t it, to go back to a traditional diet that served your people well?


Christine October 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

Seems like there will be a high chance of success since they are harnessing tools that matter to today’s teens to reach them. Great profile!


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Yes, Christine, CANFIT is pretty savvy about using social media and other online tools to reach teens in need.


MyKidsEatSquid October 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Like NPC, I’d like to know more about the work she’s doing at the American Indian reservation, sounds like a much-needed program. I haven’t read about anything like that.


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Maybe I’ll get a chance to go there and report from the field, MKES. Stay tuned.


Kerry Dexter October 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I like her interest in developing future leaders for these ideas as well as working in the present situations.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] for memory, and for dance


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Agreed, Kerry, forward thinking makes sense when you’re working with the younger generation.


Jennifer Margulis October 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm

I love reading about these wonderful initiatives in California. I wish we could bring them to Oregon too!
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..So What’s Your 7-Year-Old Bringing For Snack?


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Many of the model programs here — like The Bread Project I wrote about recently — seem imminently transferable to other states, Jen.


Jennifer Margulis October 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Oh – and if any of your readers are interested, in Oregon public schools we insist on feeding poison to our children, poison that the parents bring to class. The ones who work as doctors. Sigh.
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..So What’s Your 7-Year-Old Bringing For Snack?


Sarah Henry October 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Oh, gosh, do I dare look?


Alexandra October 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm

These interviews of yours are so interesting! I particularly enjoyed reading Hinkle’s journey to where she is now. Sometimes I feel as if Berkeley were on another planet, rather than simply at the other side of this great country of ours. The US government needs to wake up and stop kowtowing to corporate interests that push GMOs into the marketplace and refuse to label them. We need nutritious food. Many citizens in Berkeley seem to get it. They need to be sent as ambassadors to other parts of the country before it is to late. Oh, and to Congress. Could you perhaps write a post about those who have testified before Congress on food matters, or does that not happen?
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Let’s Talk Mattress Pads


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm

I enjoyed learning about Hinkle’s journey too. Makes you realize there are many ways to follow a path.


Living Large in our Little House October 21, 2011 at 1:28 am

What a great initiative!


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Agreed, LLLH.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart October 21, 2011 at 6:54 am

It makes me sad to think people might NOT eat healthier foods because of what they think they represent in society. Health is health. Our bodies are all the same. I hope Hinkle’s work can turn those misconceptions around.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Dog Training Update: Lilly at the Nursing Home


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I found that aspect fascinating. too, Roxanne. As a culture, or many cultures, we attach a lot of meaning to the foods we eat.


merr October 22, 2011 at 7:31 am

I love how you find the great stories in your area and write them up…it is uplifting and I imagine helps people involved in the programs feel more connected to the community as a whole (and vice versa) and each other.


Sarah Henry October 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm

There’s just so much interesting and innovative work in this area, merr. I’m grateful I have the opportunity to cover it and share it with others.


Sheryl October 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm

What a great initiative. Sorely needed, especially on Indian reservations where the rate of obesity and diabetes is so high.


Sarah Henry October 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Yes, Sheryl, an especially vulnerable population on the food front — and other health measures — for sure.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable October 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm

I love to read that these messages are making it to the youth. I know that personally, I’m still trying to break a few bad eating habits that have been ingrained in me from my own youth. Pasta served with bread? Who decided that’s a must have combo?? So carb heavy, but the two go hand in hand, don’t they?
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..Going Bananas


Sarah Henry October 25, 2011 at 1:14 pm

You could work as a Lunch Lady, Kris. Remember that silly “two carb rule?” What were they thinking indeed? One carb does us all nicely, thanks very much, and if it’s whole grain all the better for you.

Here’s one of my bad food habits: I am forever cutting up fruit for my kid and whatever hungry pals wind up at my house. But find myself infrequently eating said fruit. What’s with that? Makes no sense.


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