Inspiring Hispanic Families in West Orange to Eat Healthier and Get Fit

June 19, 2018

West Essex YMCA Eating HealthyWest Orange resident Rosa Santa Cruz’ older daughter came home from school in 2014 with a flyer about a free nutrition and fitness program offered by the West Essex YMCA. Santa Cruz signed her family up, and her two girls, 12-year-old Jasmine and 8-year-old Lilly, have been attending La Vida Deliciosa ever since.

“It’s been really good for us,” Santa Cruz said. “I enjoy Zumba, and I like my girls playing and being social in a healthy way,” she said. Santa Cruz said she’s learned healthier cooking techniques, and the family has greatly reduced the amount of sugar they consume.

The West Essex YMCA created La Vida Deliciosa in 2012 through a YMCA of the USA grant to improve the health of Hispanic families with low incomes in West Orange. While grant funding ended, the YMCA has continued the popular program because it does so much good, West Essex YMCA Executive Director Helen Flores said.

“I am proud we are able to help an underserved population,” Flores said.

The program began under the name Salsa, Sabor y Salud, and changed to La Vida Deliciosa a few years later. The YMCA holds two or three 12-week sessions a year at Washington Elementary School for about 25 families each session, Flores said.

West Essex Y Eat HealthyFor two hours each week, families gather to learn about a health topic such as diabetes prevention and managing cholesterol. Children go to the gym to play active games while the adults take a group exercise class, La Vida Deliciosa coordinator Elena Cruz said.

“It’s very much family-focused,” said West Essex YMCA Associate Executive Director Joanne Browne, noting grandparents often attend.

Saint Barnabas Medical Center, The West Essex YMCA’s Signature Partner for Healthy Living, provides a nutritionist and nurses who check participants’ body mass index and run workshops, Flores said. Elena Cruz recruits other speakers.

Santa Cruz said she changed the way she cooks, sautéing rather than deep frying because of what she is learning through La Vida Deliciosa. “Simple is better,” she said. The family eats less cheese and switched from whole milk to low-fat milk. They also gave up once-preferred sodas and juices, enjoying water instead, she said. “We eat a whole fruit instead of having juice,” said Santa Cruz, who works as a teacher’s aide.

West Essex Y Learn STEMMany of the La Vida Deliciosa participants also grow vegetables at the community garden at Edison Middle School. The garden was created by the West Orange Wellness Web (WOWW), a coalition that includes representatives from the town government, the school district, and Saint Barnabas, residents, and the YMCA.

“I come from Ecuador from a family of farmers, so I really like getting to grow our food,” Santa Cruz said. Along with lettuce, spinach and tomatoes, she’s growing hot peppers, which she said she shares with other participants.