Sara Meays, program manager for the North Country Eat Smart New York program, talks about the benefits of the nutrition education initiative
By Rachel Evans
Q.: Tell us a little about you, your position and title, and why you became interested in this field.
A.: I am the program manager for the North Country Eat Smart New York program. The North Country region serves 10 counties in northern New York including Oneida, Herkimer, Lewis, Jefferson, Oswego, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Hamilton and Essex counties.
I became interested in this program because of the educational aspect of it. As a former teacher, I have always believed that providing people with knowledge can be life changing. Giving individuals the information and knowledge they need to make their lifestyle healthier is no different.
Q.: What is the Eat Smart New York program and how does it benefit people?
A.: Eat Smart New York is a federally funded, free nutrition education program for children and adults. ESNY provides nutrition education information and materials, and sponsors education events and classes in our local communities for children, adults, and seniors on a variety of nutrition topics. These include healthy eating on a budget, smart shopping for vegetables and fruit, healthy meal planning, basic cooking and food safety skills, weight control and physical activity.
Q.: What would you say is the biggest focus of the Eat Smart New York program?
A.: ESNY has three main goals: eat more fruits and vegetables; drink less sugar-sweetened beverages; and exercise more and balance calories eaten as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Q.: I’ve heard that program staff conducts grocery store tours? Can you tell me a little more about that?
A.: Grocery store tours, during which educators toured grocery stores and provided participants with a $10 store gift card, were funded from a small grant, which has expired. The only county in our region conducting store tours in this way is Clinton County. However, we do continue to provide nutrition education in grocery stores.
When possible, our educators enjoy reaching our participants in grocery stores. Grocery store events are a fantastic way to reach individuals who qualify for — but don’t know about — our program.
Programming in grocery stores allows individuals to meet informally with program educators, have the opportunity to try new foods, and immediately find those ingredients in the store. In Oneida County, we regularly schedule events at Your Bargain Grocer on Columbia Street in Utica. For more information about any of our programs, visit northcountryeatsmartny.org or call 1-844-3MY-ESNY.
Q.: Can you talk a little bit about who qualifies for the program, and what they might do if they were interested in the program?
A.: Individuals who qualify for or receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are able to participate in ESNY.
For information on ESNY programming, or to explore the resources we offer, visit northcountryeatsmartny.org, or check out our Facebook page at North Country Eat Smart NY.
However, we do not qualify people for SNAP benefits. Anyone can find out if they qualify for SNAP by visiting https://mybenefits.ny.gov/mybenefits/begin or calling their county’s Department of Social Services office.
Q.: What would you say is the most beneficial part of the Eat Smart New York program?
A.: To me, one of the most beneficial parts of ESNY is that we provide very useful, practical information to our participants. We like to remind our participants that making small changes to their lifestyle can add up to a big difference to their overall health.
Q.: Are you able to share some things that participants of the program have said about the value of Eat Smart New York?
A.: We often offer a food demo or food tasting at many of our events. Often, participants state beforehand that they don’t think they will like the item we have for testing.
For example, a student recently told an educator who was sampling a spinach pesto that they wouldn’t like it because they don’t like spinach.
After a bit of coaxing, the child excitedly told her, “I do like this! I should try new foods more often!”
Other participants often tell us that they find it helpful to learn easy and inexpensive ways to eat healthier and be more active.
Q.: What has been the most significant accomplishment of the Eat Smart New York Program over the past few years?
A.: Our ESNY program region is made up of 10 widespread, rural counties in northern New York, so reaching all of the individuals who qualify for our program can be difficult. To combat that problem, we recently launched a “mobile lesson” program. This program gives individuals the opportunity to watch short nutrition lessons via DVD or online at our website, northcountryeatsmartny.org. The videos offer practical tips on eating better on a budget, limiting sugary drinks, and becoming more physically active.
These video lessons have helped us share important health information with those individuals who for whatever reason can’t access our in-person lessons.