Helping Low-Income Adolescents Increase Healthy Eating and Physical Activity

A Profile of Arnell J. Hinkle, MA, RD, MPH, CHES, an RWJF Community Health Leader

    • October 6, 2011

In 2003, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) named Arnell J. Hinkle, MA, RD, MPH, CHES, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader in recognition of her work to improve healthy eating and physical activity environments for adolescents from low-income communities and communities of color.

The problem. Low-income adolescents in historically underserved populations—Black, American Indian, Latino-Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures—often have limited access to affordable, healthy food and safe places for physical activity. What would help younger adolescents increase their healthy eating and physical activity?

Finding her life's work. Hinkle admits that she followed a rather circuitous, 10-year path to find her life's work as an advocate for healthy and active living. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in geology in 1976, she realized that "geology was going to lead to a PhD, or working for oil companies, and I wasn't ready for either of those." But she had always loved cooking, and she wanted a marketable skill, so she sought training as a chef. After a brief stint in chef's school, she started to apprentice for a hotel chef in Martha's Vineyard—and her career in the food world was launched.

Soon, Hinkle was also growing herbs and vegetables for restaurants, and working for a time on an organic farm. All of this, and the feeling that the cream sauces she was cooking weren't very healthy for her customers, drew her towards health and nutrition. Hinkle earned a master's degree in nutritional horticulture at Lesley College in Cambridge, where she concentrated on learning "how to make and grow healthy food no matter where you are." In 1986, she headed west to the University of California, Berkeley, earning a BS degree in nutrition and clinical dietetics, and then a master's degree in public health nutrition.

After working for three years as a senior health education specialist and a project coordinator for a county health system in Pleasant Hill, Calif., Hinkle was approached to become the founding executive director of a new nonprofit organization called CANFIT—which stands for community, adolescents, nutrition and fitness. Beginning in Berkeley in 1993, CANFIT started a movement to increase healthy eating and physical activity among adolescents (ages 10 to 14) in low-income communities and communities of color. "No one else was looking at nutrition and fitness issues for adolescents" from these two communities, said Hinkle, who instantly saw all of her previous training and professional pursuits come to a logical endpoint. "That was the problem, that was the issue I wanted to take on."

The story of CANFIT and Hinkle. Founded in 1993, CANFIT resulted from a class action suit involving a food company that was charged with fraudulent, misleading and deceptive advertising in marketing sugary cereals to children. After the California Supreme Court ruled that the case had just cause for action, it was settled out of court—with the condition that an organization be established to look at and improve the nutritional needs of low-income, minority adolescents in California. CANFIT was born.

As the organization's first employee, Hinkle, as executive director, helped to build an organization that works with community-based and youth organizations to create local solutions and develop policies and practices that improve the environment for healthy eating and physical activity. From her work with grassroots organizations on up to government policy-makers at the local, state and national levels, Hinkle focuses on producing training resources that emphasize youth leadership while reflecting a community's cultural backgrounds and expectations.

For example, through CANFIT's training and advocacy efforts, youths in California and other parts of the country participate in the MO Project—where they get together to make videos and learn how to improve the health of their community through media. The videos highlight efforts the youths want to see more of (MO), such as MO Good Food!, MO Safe Places to Play! MO Opportunity!

CANFIT also provides training for youths in a program called Promoting Healthy Activities Together or P.H.A.T., which uses hip-hop culture to promote good nutrition and physical activity. The program started in after-school programs in the San Francisco Bay area, and includes a four-hour training session on everything from fast food marketing to hip-hop dance moves.

Valuable in their own right, MO and P.H.A.T. are also models that show how adolescents can develop their own programs. "Social media might be a hook, hip-hop might be a hook," said Hinkle. "But we do a lot of pre-work in terms of digging out what is going on in that community, finding out what the youth are interested in and what kind of programs are going on, where the gaps are. We develop a strategy that is unique and specific to each community."

Community Health Leader perspective. In 2003, RWJF named Hinkle an RWJF Community Health Leader, an award that recognizes individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities.

Hinkle used her award to advance her mission at CANFIT. At the time, she said, "the work we were doing was cutting-edge. No one was looking at nutrition and fitness issues for adolescents from lower income and communities of color."

Nearly two decades after CANFIT was founded, Hinkle's efforts to produce youth-led nutrition and physical activity education training resources are nationally recognized and the models she helped develop are used throughout the United States. Hinkle is pleased that CANFIT's community-focused efforts to reduce childhood obesity are earning attention. "It's rewarding to see our experience and strategies finally being accepted as part of the public discourse on ways to improve the health of young people and their communities," she says.

Is CANFIT making a difference? "That is always the hard part, 'Is it working?'" asked Hinkle. "It's not about weight and obesity prevention per se—it's about health. Are they doing healthier things than before? Are they eating more fruits and vegetables than before? Are they engaged in their communities to help make their communities healthier? And it's not about the individual per se—but are they learning the tools to make their environments healthier? A lot of our work boils down to, 'This is what is happening in your community. What can you do about it?'"

Hinkle notes that being the recipient of a Community Health Leader award "raised the profile of our organization, and that was helpful." She praises the convenings that bring together other leaders to learn from each other, calling them "a deep and rich support group," and credits the program with introducing her to the world of policy development and helping her understand the political process in Washington.

She also believes her experience as Community Health Leader helped her earn two prestigious fellowships. In 2008, she was named a Food and Society Policy Fellow—a program sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Fair Food Foundation and Woodcock Foundation through the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute. Then, in 2010, she earned an Ian Axford Public Policy Fellowship to work at the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs in New Zealand, looking at nutrition and physical activity policy implementation, an honor, which she says, "came directly from the validation that I received from RWJF as a Community Health Leader".

RWJF perspective. Since 1991, RWJF has recognized unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities—often among the most disenfranchised populations—to address some of the nation's most intractable health care problems. The formal recognition of these Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders and their programs often launches them to greater levels of influence and extends their reach to serve more vulnerable populations.

Under the Community Health Leaders program, RWJF each year provides a $125,000 award to 10 individuals and their organizations ($105,000 supports a project at their organization and $20,000 goes directly to the leader for personal development). RWJF also connects the Community Health Leaders with one another so they can build their programs upon the wisdom and experience of their peers and previous award winners.

"Community Health Leaders are characterized by three specific traits—they are courageous, they are creative and they are committed," says National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin. "The Foundation recognizes the tremendous resource of experiences among the leaders and we look forward to mining that resource as we consider future initiatives."

"Through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders program, we at the Foundation have the opportunity to recognize innovative and courageous local leaders behind ground-breaking efforts in communities across the U.S." said Sallie George, MPH, program officer at RWJF. "These individuals remind us that one person can have a powerful impact on health and health care within their communities."