(Hayley Miller for boston.com)
At just 2 years old, Cassandra Louis is already learning the value of a healthy lifestyle. The Mattapan girl slurped her kale and barley soup with a smile, while cuddling up next to her beaming mother.
While most children cringe at the thought of gulping down a leafy vegetable like kale, Cassandra tasted it in stride at the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition’s “Get Your Plate In Shape” event this month.
“I really love it,” Cassandra’s mother, Marie Louis, 43, said of the event. “You get a lot of information on what to eat, what to feed your family and how to stay on a budget.”
About 20 people attended the event, which featured an interactive presentation on healthy alternatives for use in meals, such as quinoa and barley, as well as tips for incorporating the foods into a largely Haitian community’s diet.
Louis, a native of Haiti, said it has been difficult to provide nutritionally balanced meals to her family since moving to Mattapan six years ago. She said the coalition's focus on nutrition was welcome. “We don’t have much money, so healthy is a good thing.”
The coalition, founded in 2006 with the help of Mattapan resident and nutritionist Vivien Morris, has developed several annual initiatives to combat high rates of obesity and heart disease within a growing low-income community.
“Changing the way you eat is not just an individual action -- it’s social,” Morris explained. “Creating social gatherings in the community to try a different way of eating is part of the different approaches to help us make a healthier lifestyle change.”
Silvia Carter, a nutrition coordinator at ABCD Head Start in Mattapan and a six-year member of the coalition, led the discussion at the event. She cited the lack of a central supermarket in Mattapan as one of the key factors leading to unhealthy lifestyles in the community.
“It’s really difficult,” Carter said of the supermarket void. “Really coming together helps [residents] to understand first, how they can utilize what they have, and to see what is needed here and try and support the community.”
Carter, a native of Barbados, shared tips on getting even the pickiest of youngsters to embrace nutritious foods.
“It’s important to know your family and see how you can incorporate this stuff, so they like it,” Carter said. “I find with kids, if you make them part of the process, they are really going to enjoy it.”
The coalition is currently leading an effort to bring healthier food and snacks to local food stores. The initiative, known as “Healthy on the Block,” reaches out to local vendors in an attempt to provide the community with healthier affordable food options, while promoting local businesses.
“It’s taken a lot of effort on the storeowners' part – it’s a risk,” Morris said. “It’s really good to see that it’s appreciated.”
The coalition’s next event will be “Moving For Life,” a series of nature walks starting on June 9 at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (firstname.lastname@example.org), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.