Nutrition class teaches South L.A. women to put health first

The ladies clogging the canned food aisles at the Crenshaw-area Ralphs last week weren’t trying to find the best deals for their pocketbooks, but the smartest choices for their bodies.

The peaches intended for Sunday’s cobbler? Those packed in “extra heavy” syrup come with twice the calories as the “extra light” variety.

The chicken broth for a hearty soup? “Natural goodness” on the label means 400 fewer grams of sodium. Substitute brown rice for white, and you’ve got half the calories and twice the fiber.

“This is why we have so many sick people,” one heavyset, gray-haired woman griped as she studied the label on her favorite brand of pinto beans. She scribbled the numbers — sodium, sugars, fat, calories, fiber — on the worksheet pinned to her clipboard, then put the can back and moved on.


This wasn’t a shopping trip; it was a class. And the two dozen students from South Los Angeles were trying to get their healthy on.

The story is familiar and the stats are dismal: Blacks are twice as likely as whites to have diabetes, 30% more likely to die from heart disease and almost twice as likely to be obese. Almost a quarter of black families live in communities where supermarkets are scarce and heavily stocked with processed foods.

That’s what led the Los Angeles Urban League to launch a series of cooking, nutrition and exercise classes in the Crenshaw area two years ago.

Claudette Akers began with the fitness class — two hours every Saturday in Van Ness park, where personal trainers offer lessons from tai chi to Latin dancing. That led her to the nutrition class, which landed her at Ralphs last Thursday night with her daughter, Ayesha Wallace, a junior on spring break from UC Santa Barbara.

Akers was stunned to see how much fat and sodium were in the meat-flavored pasta sauce. She had already banished fried foods from her menu, but hadn’t realized how unhealthy pasta could be.

Now she’s trying to steer her daughter away from the kinds of quick, processed meals that sustain many a college student. “I bought her a George Foreman Grill,” Akers said. “I want her to cook real food, something that will last her for a couple of meals.” While we talked, Ayesha checked the back of a Lunchables Cracker Stacker. The bologna, crackers and processed cheese add up to half a day’s worth of sodium and fat.

I was mortified, recalling the many days I had sent a daughter off to school with a Lunchable in her backpack.


The course, which includes two classroom sessions and two supermarket tours, is a collaboration between the Urban League’s Neighborhoods@Work Initiative and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s community outreach program.

“We talk about how to read food labels and how to choose healthy food,” said Heather Mason, the hospital’s wellness instructor. The group tours the market to learn when to buy produce in season, how to pick the leanest cuts of meat, and what terms like “enriched” and “all natural” really mean.

“These ladies really do like cooking, which I think is great,” Mason said. “But they’re using traditional cooking items, like heavy cream and butter.... For a lot of them, eating the correct portion sizes is the big issue.”

She walked the aisles with her students Thursday, quizzing them as she went. “They like to fool you with labels that say ‘natural,’ ” she said as the women tried to calculate whether SunChips or Baked Lay’s or Pringles were best. “But you still can’t eat a whole bag,” Mason said. There were twitters of laughter all around. SunChips won that round.

“How many chips do you think are in a serving?” she asked. They threw out guesses. Five? Twelve? “Fifteen,” she said. They took notes on her advice: “Count that many out, put them in a bowl, then put the bag back in the pantry.”


The women seemed familiar to me. Middle-aged and older; divorced or widowed, their children off in college or on their own. They are trying to adjust after years of feeding families to making meals for solo dining. “You have to change the way you do things,” Akers noted, “or you’re eating leftovers night after night.”

But there’s freedom, as well, in not having to please anyone but yourself. And the culinary discoveries they have made seem as important to these women as their improved health.

There’s a new affinity for Greek yogurt, studded with blueberries for breakfast and on baked potatoes, instead of sour cream, for lunch. Oatmeal has replaced bacon and eggs for breakfast, with strawberries and cinnamon in place of sugar or syrup.

And the class is paying dividends beyond the kitchen. One woman uses drops, not dollops, of steak sauce at Sizzler; another knows exactly how many calories are in the IHOP combo she loves. “Eleven-hundred and eighty … but I don’t go there much anymore.”

Urban League organizer D’Ann Morris said shoppers watch them in the grocery store; some even follow them through the market. “I invite them to attend, tease them about what’s in their basket. By the time they get to the checkout line, I see some of their sugary things have gone.”

Each student gets a gift card at the end of the course, Morris said. “We want them to buy things they haven’t tried before.” Last year, an older woman who’d never had an artichoke learned from the store’s produce manager how to cook it. “She bought one with her card and called me back to say how much she enjoyed it.

“She said she’d never thought about eating one before. She thought an artichoke was an ‘uppity’ vegetable … but she liked the taste. She learned something new.”

And she added one more vegetable to her rotation.