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“Dietitians on a Mission” take innovative action to improve the food environment in their community

Melissa Couture-Leger, a dietitian from Moncton, explains how a group of driven dietitians worked together with their municipality to drive policy change. 


In 2011, I decided to go public in a big way, making myself visible as a dietitian to help people in my community make better food choices. After several years working as a clinician, I realized just how many of my clients were touched by obesity and it was time for me to take action in my community to prevent this problem instead of treating it.
 
Despite the many education initiatives we lead, marketing as well as the availability and affordability of unhealthy foods, which are in large part responsible for obesity, overshadow our efforts. Motivation to make a healthy choice is more difficult for an individual when the price and availability of unhealthy foods nudge them in the opposite direction.
 
According to Statistics Canada, close to 63% of adults and 24% of youth have obesity or are overweight in New Brunswick. Obesity greatly contributes to the development of chronic disease, which costs the Canadian health care system close to 30 billion dollars per year. These statistics are very alarming!

A few passionate dietitians, Gina McGraw, Lynn Gaudet, and Stéphanie Ward, from the Moncton region decided to join me to take innovative action to make a difference in our community! Since then, a few other dietitians joined our group including Véronique Surette, Danielle Robichaud, Laura Brennan, and Émilie Leblanc.
 
The group Diététistes en Mission (Dietitians on a Mission) was launched in October 2011 to create and encourage healthy food environments, through advocacy in the Greater Moncton Community. The members of the group, all dietitians, participate as volunteers outside their regular work hours.
 
Our mission:
  • Raise awareness in the community about various issues in nutrition and the importance of a healthy diet.
  • Reinforce the role of dietitians in the community.
  • Influence and reinforce certain policies related to food and nutrition in the population.
 
Over the last few years, we have met with journalists, as well as provincial and municipal councillors, to increase our visibility and to begin discussions to advance various initiatives with the goal of improving the food environment in Greater Moncton.

Here is a snapshot of initiatives realized in recent years: 
 
  • Met provincial politicians (2012)
    • To demand a tax on sugar sweetened beverages.
    • This project was not a priority for the province at the time.
  • Met with municipal politicians (2012-2015)
    • To increase our visibility and create an advisory committee to establish a healthy eating environments policy.
  • Community dialogue (with organizations, networking)
 
In October 2014, the Diététistes en Mission in collaboration with the Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems, threw an event that celebrated the successes of those who have been able to create healthy food environments in their municipalities. During the event, six engaging testimonies were shared from successful initiatives:

• The New Brunswick Health Council
• The Coalition on Weight Related Problems (Anne-Marie Morel, Dt.p)
• The Mango Program
• The Community Cafeteria Network  
• The Canteen Initative at the Memramcook arena
• Healthy Menu Initiative at the University of New Brunswick
 
The priority issue that emerged is to improve the food offerings and access to healthy foods in parks, at city events, and at sport and recreation facilities and limit the establishment of fast-food restaurants near schools.
 
With this community dialogue, it was agreed that a committee would be created in the coming years in collaboration with the town of Moncton. Over the past two years, we have also worked on two other initiatives:
 
  1. A video to improve the food environment at municipal events (2015)
 
On August 15, 2015, the Diététistes en Mission traveled to the festival district of St. George Street with a “fridge-bike” filled with nutritious food to distribute to the public. The group interviewed twenty individuals and collected their views in light of the realities of food accessibility at municipal events.
 
The clips were edited together into a video and presented to the public at a meeting of Moncton City Council in order to engage them to act to improve the food environment at municipal events. This video demonstrated that the public would also like to have access to healthy food at municipal events. These videos are available on our Facebook page or YouTube.
 
  1. We worked to limit the establishment of fast-food restaurants close to schools (2016)
Last June, Mélissa Couture-Léger, Gina McGraw, and Tanya Morais, members and supports of the group Diététistes en Mission, joined with “Héros du Coeur” to ride around New Brunswick by bike. This initiative lasts five days and aims to raise awareness in the community of the necessity of a policy to address the school food zone. The “grand défi des Héros du Coeur” aimed to offer young New Brunswickers opportunities to take care of their health and wellness, and more than anything, it was a project to mobilize and bring together communities in New Brunswick.

The group also engaged a young participant to collect stories from the students, parents, and school personnel on their perceptions of their food environment and the usefulness of a school food zone policy. A video was created by the student, Francois Poirier, and presented to the Moncton municipal council and shared on social media. This video will be useful to raise awareness and show the community why it is necessary to limit the establishment of fast-food restaurants close to schools.

Overall, we are hoping that the results of our efforts will support the needs to create some policies related to supporting healthier food environments during municipal events, in parks, and at recreational facilities and around the schools areas.

Municipalities play a strategic role in the prevention of obesity, a staggering problem in New Brunswick. We realize that it’s time to react in an innovative and engaging manger to encourage changes in our collective behaviours. With the support of municipal counsellors and the desire of “Diététistes en Mission,” I strongly believe that we can make a difference to ensure healthier food environments for our communities!
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Editor’s note: I love the “Diététistes en Mission” concept! It is amazing to see a group of passionate dietitians volunteering to be involved in an initiative like this. The demand for accessible and affordable healthy food is increasing and municipalities supporting this is so important to the health of Canadaians. Way to go Diététistes en Mission!  I can’t wait to see what you do next.
 
Do you have comments or questions for Melissa or the Diététistes en Mission team? Leave them below! 
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