Hebni Nutrition Consultants wants to transform the way Parramore eats

Cooking classes, fresh food in convenience stores and a mobile farmers market are saving lives

Piping-hot plates of pan-seared white wine-and-rosemary chicken breast with roasted root vegetables and creamy spinach, heaping bowls of sugar-free banana pudding and a handout on dietary supplements: It’s what’s for dinner before a Monday-night class at Hebni Nutrition Consultants’ test kitchen, tucked just outside of Parramore on the corner of West Central Boulevard and Tampa Avenue. The students, men and women in their middle age, some couples with kids in tow, chat and eat family-style at round tables while waiting for the class to begin. But they’re not just interested in a healthy meal and some nutrition advice. They’re here to save their own and their families’ lives.

Local nonprofit Hebni Nutrition Consultants (soulfoodpyramid.com) was launched nearly 20 years ago as an effort to prevent diet-related diseases in at-risk communities. Founders and dietitians Roniece Weaver, Fabiola Gaines and Ellareetha Carson sought to bring free, culturally relevant nutritional education tools and strategies to local African-American communities. They recognized that these residents are at high risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Now there’s a waiting list of people wanting to attend classes. Hebni is even expanding its services by providing fresh food to harder-to-reach communities with the help of a mobile farmers market in the form of a repurposed Lynx bus.

“There’s a strong correlation between diet and disease that’s related to the way we eat,” Weaver says. “It’s taxpayers who bear the burden of these healthcare costs. I realized that people in our communities needed to see a dietitian but couldn’t afford to, so there’s often no continuity of care.”

Weaver was introduced to the importance of nutrition when she was 17 and her father was diagnosed with diabetes. “He was extremely frustrated with the dietitian because the word ‘no’ was her only vocabulary,” Weaver says. “She told him all the things he couldn’t have but none of the things he could.” As a young girl, she recognized the difficult decisions facing someone with diabetes when food options are not readily available. Her whole family improved its eating habits to be the support her father needed. That’s what sparked her to become a dietitian.

Through word of mouth, Hebni grew in popularity and size. “We kept outgrowing our office space,” Weaver says. “We started in Parramore but then we moved near the courthouse and we saw hardly anyone there. We realized we had to be in the community we were there to serve.”

Hebni settled in its current location in 2006 with the help of then-Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage. He helped Weaver tap local resources like Community Development Block Grant funding to transform Hebni’s facility into a state-of-the-art culinary laboratory. There Weaver and her team teach families to make lifestyle changes that will ultimately improve their health.

Weaver says she’s having greater success because the people she’s serving identify with and relate to her. “I talk to you like I talk to my own mother. We take the social and racial barriers out of the way.” Weaver is looking into hiring Haitian Kreyòl- and Spanish-speaking dietitians who can bridge the language gap and bring nutritional education and information to those for whom English is not their first language.

Cynthia Tucker attended her first session at Hebni after her friends from church “raved” about the experience they had. “I wanted to learn how to eat healthier so I wouldn’t end up getting sick and having to be on medications,” Tucker says. “I tell everyone I know about everything I’ve learned. From portion control to how to read food labels – these were things I never thought of. I’ve already told my daughter what she should be buying for the grandkids.”

Fabiola Gaines, an Orlando native who teaches a majority of Hebni’s sessions, has seen a trend in the community becoming more interested in healthier lifestyles. “People are more interested in prevention,” Gaines says. “In our classes, we look at the total wellness of an individual and help them see that real results can be achieved by simply changing to a healthier alternative that fits with their current lifestyle.”

Students’ height, weight, body mass index and blood pressure are measured at the beginning and end of the eight-week session. Gaines says that by the end, a majority of the participants see a clear change in overall health.

“I tell every class they need to make the change before they’re laying on a gurney,” she says.

Hebni is also taking on childhood obesity. During a 10-week summer camp in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, kids learned healthy cooking and eating habits.

“We want the next generation of children to love to eat healthy, [and] understand how their food was grown and where it comes from,” Weaver says. “When we bring them to our office, we teach them about the geographic locations of where the produce is grown, what seasons they’re grown in.” She says the main takeaway for the kids is that produce that’s in season is readily available and cheaper.

Tackling issues on the supply side, Hebni also led an initiative in 2012 to help SunLife Grocery Store in Parramore increase the amount of fresh and healthy food it offered to the community.

“We went around to all the convenience store owners in Parramore, but SunLife was the only one that shared our vision for improving the quality of food it offered,” Weaver says.

At the time, SunLife Grocery had an extremely limited selection of fresh produce. According to Weaver, the only fresh food available from the store was “a few old bananas and a couple of potatoes.” She said she saw kids from the neighborhood sustaining themselves exclusively on junk food.

With a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield, Hebni helped the store fill its empty produce aisle and add refrigerated cases and freezers. The store continues to stock aisles and coolers of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. Weaver says demand for fresh food is so high, the store’s owners are hardly able to keep their shelves filled.

But the founders of Hebni recognized the broader issue of lack of access to fresh and healthy food could not be solved by individual stores alone.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a “food desert” as any neighborhood or town, rural or urban, without ready access to fresh, healthy, affordable food, as measured by distance to a store. Taking into account access to public and private transportation, a city or neighborhood qualifies as a “low-access community” when at least 500 people or at least 33 percent of its population reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Without access to a car, the idea of walking or taking the bus to a supermarket and then carrying multiple grocery bags, especially when accompanied by children, can be daunting.

“There are no full-service grocery stores in the vicinity,” Weaver says of Parramore, the historical hub of Orlando’s African-American community. “Without a car, you either have to catch a bus or a cab to get to the nearest grocery store. There’s nothing full-service within walking distance at all. Because the Parramore community is so small, chain grocery stores have decided the population isn’t large enough to support a store like Publix or Walmart. Neither grocery stores nor the zoning or planning department of the city or the county have made any attempt to serve that community.”

There are dozens of these grocery gaps documented in Central Florida, according to the USDA’s Food Research Atlas. Of the 1.25 million Floridians living in the gaps, roughly 224,000 individuals in Central Florida are faced with limited food choices. The packaged snacks and ready-to-eat meals stocked in the typical convenience store are not conducive to healthy eating.

In 2012, Weaver also decided Hebni should create Florida’s first mobile farmers market run by dietitians, to fill the grocery gaps of Central Florida’s underserved communities, including Bithlo, Apopka, Osceola, Pine Hills, Washington Shores and Mercy Drive. She contacted the Community Health Impact Council at Florida Hospital and with their support reached out to John Lewis, Chief Executive Officer of Lynx, the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which donated a retired bus. The retired bus was retrofitted with the help of local custom mechanics Prestige Food Trucks to serve as a mobile produce stand.

On Saturday, Nov. 8, the Fresh Stop Mobile Market made its unofficial debut at the 2014 Step Out Walk to Stop Diabetes in Orlando. The brightly colored vehicle looks like a rolling fruit bowl and sports 20 feet of retail space for locally sourced fresh produce. Though specific routes, stops and times are still being worked out, the bus will visit 16 different neighborhoods once every two weeks and will accept cash, credit or debit cards, and EBT. Weaver plans to keep prices low by sourcing food from wholesalers who service local farms and only offering produce that’s in season.

“If it’s not in season, the people won’t buy it because it will cost too much,” Weaver says. “If they’re not buying it in the stores, they certainly won’t be buying it on the bus.”

Weaver plans to do what food trucks do – tell people via Twitter and Facebook where and when to find the bus. And if everything goes according to plan, she envisions three or four additional buses in cities across the state by 2030. It’s one more aspect of Hebni’s quest to get people to eat better for life, not as a temporary foodie fad. But the bus is only a quick fix to a much broader problem.

“I will have done my job when the food industry realizes it needs to put grocery stores into inner-city neighborhoods,” Weaver says. “Our spending power is strong and our allegiance to certain brands is stronger. I challenge all of our grocers to bring their products back into our communities. Until they decide to come, I’m going to fill the gap.”

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