Making A Difference

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Pesticides. Obesity. The know-how to cook dinner. Meet three Central Florida women who are improving others’ lives.

by Rona Gindin 

Farmworkers’ Friend
Jeannie Economos

You’ll find nothing slick about the Farmworker Association of Florida. Its board of directors is composed of people who work in the fields or once did. It has no lobbyist. Its five offices, including the Apopka home base, are frugally staffed.

But, boy, does this association of 8,000 member families have power. With the help of Jeannie Economos, the Farmworker Association of Florida has had major coups over its nearly 30 years. And according to Economos, the group’s pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator, more work needs to be done.

Economos speaks in exclamation points while touting her employer’s recent part in getting a pesticide called methyl iodide off the state’s farms. “It’s a really dangerous chemical that can cause birth defects, thyroid cancer and groundwater contamination,” she explains. “We helped get stricter regulations in Florida than the EPA set, and now the manufacturer has decided to pull it from the U.S. market.” Several factors may have influenced their decision, she notes, including slow sales and a pending lawsuit in California over the state’s use of it.

The grassroots organization has more battles to fight. One priority is getting healthcare providers to identify and diagnose symptoms caused by various pesticides—and then learn to treat the patients and report the illnesses. “It’s not on their radar,” Economos has found about members of the state’s healthcare community. “Florida is one of three states with the highest use of pesticides in the country yet we have had almost zero reported cases of pesticide exposure.” Economos cites three reasons for this: Farmworkers are often afraid of being fired or being turned over to immigration; healthcare workers don’t diagnose or report the problem and the system for reporting pesticide exposure cases has many weaknesses. Studies have linked pesticide exposure to infertility, ADHD in children, birth defects, cancer, diabetes and immune system disorders.

Economos, her team and her membership will continue signing petitions, meeting with decision makers and “making a lot of noise” until its members—most of the Latino, Haitian and African-American populations—work in humane conditions. “I’m in it for the long haul,” she says.

Fat Fighter
Dr. Angela Fals

Dr. Angela Fals tells children to eat their vegetables. What’s more, she insists that parents dig into the string beans, too. Grow herb gardens, cook dinner together, take a walk when you’re done eating—this accomplished young doctor is quick to reel off lifestyle mandates for the whole family.

They love it, and they come back for more.

As medical director of the Healthy 100 Kids Program at Florida Hospital for Children, Dr. Fals is one of four professionals who team up to help overweight kids become healthier. The quartet takes on that challenge in an atmosphere so approachable that not only do patients see these experts working in laymans’ clothing, not intimidating “whites”; little ones also run around outside with their mentors during a monthly boot camp called “Exercise with your doctor.” Local pediatricians sometimes join in, too.

Healthy 100 Kids is a 2-year-old program designed to help children shed excess pounds. Each participant meets four times a year with Dr. Fals plus a dietician, an exercise physiologist and a psychologist. The multi-disciplinary approach “makes the program very complete,” Dr. Fals explains. In between, participants are free to call and e-mail whichever expert is designated their primary health coach. They’re also encouraged to attend a few workshops a month, held in three Central Florida locations. And, with loads of easy-to-understand information, they’re urged to eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

Why get those moms munching celery and submitting to body mass index tests along with Brittany or Bobby? “The only way to work successfully with a child is through the family,” Dr. Fals has learned. “If 7-year-old Mary has to make better choices, her parents need to lead by example.”

With the help of grants and insurance, Healthy 100 Kids turns away no child for financial reasons. But once they’re in, children had better stick to the ground rules … or else. Dr. Fals and her teammates are determined to help each and every one  live to 100.

Kitchen Confidante
Laura King

Laura KingAs education efforts moved away from life skills and more toward FCATs and AP classes, a longtime stalwart got pushed aside: home economics. At Lake Mary High School, Laura King is bringing it back, bigger, better and with a new name. King teaches Principles of Food Prep, Nutrition & Wellness to more teens every year. Her goal is to help young men and women “get ready for independent living”—i.e. cook for themselves and eat healthfully.

Her class grows more popular each year as word has gotten around school that “this is not a class where students sit in front of a book. It’s active. We have cooking labs at least once a week.” Some may sign up just because they get to eat, she concedes, yet they’re reaping far more. “This is academic with a strenuous curriculum, tests and techniques like calculating one’s body mass index.”

Most important, they learn about healthy living. “I’m a firm believer that we’ve gone in the wrong direction when it comes to eating out all the time,” King says. “We really start losing out nutritionally. I’m helping these kids discover the joy of cooking and the benefits of not having as many preservatives in their food, that sort of thing. We even started an herb garden last year. Students can see the results of their work very quickly, whether cooking or planting, and that reaps a positive reinforcement and, ultimately, positive self-esteem.”

King worked as a teacher and a baker-caterer-entrepreneur before this, and now she’s hoping to take her career, and her students, a step further. She’s hoping to earn a certification from Johnson & Wales University to teach culinary arts. Then, assuming she has financial support, she’ll be able to evolve her curriculum into a career-based one. That way students can graduate knowing how to cook at home—or professionally. “Ideally, I’d like to offer culinary arts classes through four years of high school” so students can launch their career in the food-service industry.

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