A Nutritional Oasis



Photo by: Dietmar Quistorf

Los Angeles is known for being home to exercise enthusiasts and the calorically conscious, alike.

With gyms, farmers’ markets and restaurants catering to restricted diets sprouting up all over the city, it’s never been easier to live healthily.

But not all Angelenos are able to lead such healthy lifestyles.

In the East Los Angeles neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights, grocery stores with fresh fruits and veggies are far outnumbered by fast-food restaurants, classifying the area as a “food desert.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlets.”

These populations have higher rates and risks of obesity-related chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Especially vulnerable in these areas are children, as childhood obesity has shown to lead to health problems in adulthood.

Recognizing the need to support local communities, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy began the Fit Families program in 2006.

Fit Families is a free health-and-wellness program designed for the residents of the East Los Angeles area. The program takes place every Saturday at Hazard Park, starting with a fitness and exercise portion. Afterward, the group travels to the nearby USC Keck School of Medicine cafeteria for nutritional training.

Cheryl Resnik DPT ’97, associate chair and associate professor of clinical physical therapy and director of community outreach, runs the Fit Families program.

“When we began the program in 2006, we targeted children ages 10 to 17,” she said. “Since then, we extended our program to children as young as 7 [accompanied by an adult] to promote healthy lifestyles at an even earlier age.”

Current participants range in age from 7 to 54.

The Saturday program begins with intake, where USC physical therapists and student volunteers record each participant’s vital signs as well as their height, weight and body mass index.

Afterward, Fit Families participants gather for the exercise portion of the program, which consists of a warm-up followed by circuit training and other break-out activities including games, Zumba and yoga.

Finally, the group goes to the Keck cafeteria for the nutritional program taught by nutritionist and health educator Sara Jean Train.

Train plans each week’s lesson thoughtfully and tailors it to what’s available in the food desert of East L.A.

Typical lessons include learning to read a food label, introducing new veggies and fruits into a diet and providing nutrition advice for individuals with diabetes.

After each informational lesson, the group cooks a seasonal and healthy recipe.

“My goal is to inspire people to think creatively about their food and feel empowered to make changes. All of our recipes include ingredients that can be purchased with a SNAP card,” Train said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income families afford groceries.

Angelica Reyes has been attending Fit Families since 2007.

The 22-year-old UCLA student said she uses the skills she’s learned to practice healthy habits—not only for herself but also for her 2-year-old son Nathan.

“It can be challenging living in a food desert to make healthy foods, but Sara Jean really helps us by giving us new recipes and telling us where to shop for fresh ingredients,” Reyes said. “Setting goals to follow in both the exercise and nutritional portions really help you stay accountable and develop good habits.”

Reyes recently dropped soda from her diet with the help of the Fit Families. This is among many benchmarks achieved during her eight years with the program. She said she has also learned to incorporate new ingredients like buckwheat into her cooking, which adds variety to her and her family’s diet.

“Angelica has an unstoppable thirst to learn. She challenges me to expand my knowledge of every topic just so I am prepared to answer her follow-up questions. She is an inspiration,” Train said.

Reyes was just as appreciative of the program. “Having a reliable support group like Fit Families is very helpful,” she said. “They even offer my son childcare during the program so I can maintain fitness and nutritional goals to take home and share with my family.”

For more information visit Fit Families on the web go to/ or follow USC PT Fit Families on Facebook.