Fresh Conversations inspires Detroit seniors to eat healthy and move more

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Like many of Detroit’s older adults, LaDonna Johnson lives in an assisted living community and chooses most of her meals from the facility’s menu. Since she started taking part in Fresh Conversations, a weekly nutrition class offered to seniors by the Methodist Children’s Home Society (MCHS), she's become more mindful about making healthy food choices.

“I’m doing a lot more investigation into what I’m putting into me," Johnson says. "As you get older, that becomes more important to think about.”

Fresh Conversations is made possible through Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

“I feel inspired by the program,” Johnson says. “I ask for a lot more vegetables and fruits than I had been eating, and I’m doing the labels again. I used to read labels, but back then I was more concerned with calories. Now I am more interested in those other things and how detrimental they can be to our health.”

Fresh Conversations participant LaDonna Johnson makes corn salad using a recipe she got from the program.
Coach, mentor, and nutrition educator

Valerie Middlebrook, Ph.D., leads Fresh Conversations and educates participants about those "other things" — sugars, unhealthy fats, sodium, and additives commonly found in ultra-processed foods. A retired high school teacher, dancer, and former head coach of varsity basketball, track, and cross-country teams, Middlebrook launched the MCHS Fresh Conversations program in 2019. In 2020, her goal was to engage 100 participants by the end of September. She surpassed her goal. By July, 200 of Detroit’s older adults had already taken part in the program.

“Most of the adults that I talk to are struggling with high blood pressure, diabetes, weight issues, obesity issues, and other issues related to health — a whole variety of nerve conditions, sciatica, recovery from strokes, an array of conditions,” Middlebrook says. “I believe that what we eat has a powerful influence on our health. The seniors find it very rewarding to participate in Fresh Conversations. It reminds them of things they can do to improve their nutrition and how eating healthy food can help prevent diet​-related illness.”

Middlebrook is also a powerful influencer when it comes to fitness. Johnson is a prime example.

Inspired by her new focus on healthy eating, Johnson is finding more ways to live a healthier life. “I have arthritis. My knees are especially painful a lot of the time,” Johnson says. “I just got a new, bigger apartment. So, I do a lot of walking in the apartment. Going to the office here [in my building], I noticed an exercise room. I finally got the courage to go down there. It’s so wonderful! It has the kind of equipment I need and a TV to distract you so you go ahead and do what you plan to do. I’m going to try to really commit to that.”

Fresh Conversations inspires older adults to change their food and beverage choices along with their activity level so they can age with better health. The original 10-month program in 2020 included 60-minute sessions held once a month, face-to-face, at community centers and assisted living facilities in the Rosa Parks neighborhood. Since COVID-19, the classes have gone virtual — and with great success. Middlebrook delivers the classes more often and on various schedules depending on the audience. And, because the sessions are virtual, the program's audience has stretched across Wayne County.

Fresh Conversations participant LaDonna Johnson makes corn salad using a recipe she got from the program.
Eating healthy and finding ways to be active on a budget can be challenging. During each session, Middlebrook shares tasty recipes and helpful tips for living healthy.

“Dr. Val meets them right where they are," says Tree Lipar, MCHS director of senior services. "She teaches and instructs with such grace and respect for each participant that they want more. She’s so patient and kind that they want to learn. She encourages them to want to change and they do. The other cool thing that happens is they start to tell their friends. We haven’t even had to market the program. Her next group is already full. That is how extraordinary she is. They want to come, and they want their friends to have a piece of it.”

Since many of the participants are either not comfortable with technology or lack access to laptops, tablets, or state-of-the-art smartphones, Middlebrook relies on the UberConference platform, which makes the call to all of the participants when classes start — even if they have landline phones.

“Many of the people are old-school when it comes to being very comfortable with technology,” Middlebrook says. “They really like talking on the telephone as opposed to participating on a computer or a smartphone.”

For Middlebrook, old-school also means hard copies of materials. She creates Fresh Conversations packets including class materials and Nutrition Education Reinforcement Items (NERI) that include a strength band for exercising, and the Family Approved: Recipes from Michigan Harvest of the Month™ recipe book, which she mails or hand-delivers to each participant before a new class series begins.

Overcoming older adults’ biggest health challenge

According to Lipar, the biggest health issue facing older adults in Detroit is lack of access to healthy food. For many seniors, the only available food close to where they live is found at neighborhood convenience stores which don’t regularly stock fruits and vegetables. “They buy things at convenience stores that are high with saturated fats, carbohydrates, and sugar content that lack vitamins and nutrients,” Lipar says. Policies that bring healthy food into the neighborhoods where seniors live are so important to pursue.

The Fresh Conversations program is helping Detroit’s seniors live healthier lives.

LaDonna Johnson's completed corn salad.
“I’ve been telling my friends about Fresh Conversations because I think it’s very important. I like the name. It makes you feel like you’re about to do something better,” Johnson says. “I’m finding out more things than I knew before and reviewing other things I did know as I’ve been on this journey of health. Now, I can do better.”
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