Oilers Foundation makes healthy youth a goal

$50,000 gift helps bring nutritional outreach program to new Canadians

Sarah Pratt - 15 May 2017

Mohamed Elsaghir knows that young immigrants can be unsure how to shop in Canadian grocery stores, budget and read food labels properly. Elsaghir, the former co-ordinator of youth programs at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, moved to Canada from Egypt when he was five years old, so he understands the challenges. Accessing proper nutrition is one of them.

"We need healthy families, especially kids who get substance and not just fillers," he says.

Searching for new ways to help immigrant youth, Elsaghir heard about a nutrition outreach program created at the University of Alberta.

Why Act Now (Wellness & Health in Youth - Aboriginal and New Canadian Communities in Transition Now) aims to improve the health of urban Indigenous and new Canadian youth through research and outreach. In-school workshops teach junior high and high school students how to shop on a budget and make healthy food choices.

A recent $50,000 donation from the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation is helping to expand the Why Act Now program beyond schools and into community organizations such as the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

Elsaghir thought the workshops would be a perfect fit for his immigrant youth group. The teens went on grocery store tours to learn about Canadian food and food from other cultures, and talked about making healthy choices. They learned the difference between an expiration date and a sell-before date, how to identify healthy foods by reading packaging, and how to get protein without having to break the budget buying expensive meat.

"It helped familiarize the newcomers with Canadian foods and local standards," he says. "There was a lot of new information that isn't always talked about in the cultures the immigrants come from."

Why Act Now began as a research project created by Sangita Sharma, endowed chair in Indigenous health in UAlberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. Sharma collected data from 556 Edmonton-area teenagers with different ethnic backgrounds to gauge their healthy eating habits. The results showed that 90 per cent of students exceeded the recommended daily intake of sodium, while 84 per cent did not meet the estimated average requirements for fiber and vitamin D.

Twenty-five per cent didn't eat breakfast at all during the week.

The result of Sharma's research is a rich library of resources, available for download at whyactnow.ca.

"Why Act Now reaches so many groups and perfectly aligns with our specific mandate - to support education and health and wellness for youth," says Natalie Minckler, executive director of the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation. "We believe in starting nutrition education in school very early."

After the workshops, Elsaghir saw a positive change in the choices his youth group members made. "At least half of them have integrated the healthy lessons into their daily lives."

"I know when my family came to Canada, it shaped the way we thought about food," he says. "We had to think about cost and learn that food is not just about what tastes good, it's fuel for good health."