Karen Estrada used to read food labels while shopping but often did not know how to interpret the nutritional information. These days, she scours the tiny print for sodium, fat and sugar content. She writes the USDA recommended daily sodium intake at the top of her grocery lists, a reminder to choose low-sodium.
“Now I really think about what I am buying and reading labels makes sense,” said Estrada, 28, an administrative assistant who lives with her husband and son, 7, in Los Angeles. “Reading labels and trying to eat different colored fruits and vegetables has been a really big change. I learned I was eating a lot of foods that had a lot of sodium in them.”
Estrada changed her shopping and eating habits after participating in nutrition education and financial literacy classes, through the Women’s Health & Money @ Work program. The program, which goes by WHMW, is a collaboration between the Iris Cantor–UCLA Women’s Health Center, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Los Angeles branch, and Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Office of Women’s Health. Estrada, who works at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, attended six hour-long sessions in May.
The education and coaching focus on healthy eating, ways to increase activity, and personal financial management. The classes aim to help low-to-moderate income women in Los Angeles learn how to improve their health and finances through informed decision-making and personal coaching. The classes are taught at workplaces, schools and community centers, making it more convenient for the women to attend.
“There are a lot of programs that separately talk just about health or just about finances, but on an education level, there are few, if any, like our program that combine the two,” said Julie Friedman, director of the education and research center within the Iris Cantor–UCLA Women’s Health Center.
In early 2019, after 150 women have completed the course, researchers will compare 75 women who took only nutrition classes to 75 women who took both health and finance classes to determine which course has the greater positive effect. Friedman believes that combined classes taught as life skills will foster more knowledge and conviction to adopt healthier nutritional and financial practices among the women.
The WHMW program is the brainchild of Friedman and Melody Winter Head, regional manager, Southern California, Community Development Department at the Federal Reserve’s Los Angeles branch.
Prior research, including some focus groups organized by Friedman and Winter Head in 2012, has found that a lack of basic information about health and money management contributed to poverty. Earlier research by the two women showed that low-income women in Los Angeles often do not have bank accounts and often rely on costly financial services such as payday loans, pawnshops or check-cashing services. After some related research, Friedman and Winter Head decided to integrate existing health and money management classes into a series of combined financial literacy and nutrition classes.
“The most vulnerable populations in our economy are people of low income and low wealth,” Winter Head said. “They are invisible in many respects and our program breaks that barrier by reaching low-wage working women with valuable life skills training that gives them access to information and the opportunity to use it.”
Two organizations provide trained facilitators to conduct the programs on behalf of the Iris Cantor–UCLA Women’s Health Center at work locations: Building Skills Partnership, a non-profit collaboration of the janitors’ union, building owners, janitorial employers and community leaders; and Worksite Wellness L.A., a nonprofit that works to improve the health status of low-income, medically underserved families. The classes for janitorial workers, many of whom are immigrants, are taught during a late-night lunch break for graveyard shift workers.
The Iris Cantor–UCLA Women’s Health Center’s executive advisory board, L.A. Care Health Plan and the Cathay Bank Foundation, fund the program.
“Working as a janitor is pretty solitary and they don’t cross paths with each other that much,” said Monica Zambrano, a financial literacy instructor and coach at Building Skills Partnership, who has taught janitorial workers at Century Plaza Towers, U.S. Bank and Disney studios. “Lunchtime is the one time they can connect. We teach them basic finance information like writing down what they spend, opening a bank account, creating a budget, how to save, building credit and preparing for retirement. “
The financial and nutritional classes include coaching and group discussions to foster peer connections and are designed to help the participants eat healthier, be more physically active and adopt helpful financial practices.
Many low-income women are heads of household, primary grocery shoppers, or single mothers, often coping with precarious financial situations. The program, Friedman said, can provide women with some knowledge to make it easier for them to climb out of poverty and, in some instances, avoid homelessness. Learning how to save, become more financially stable and make healthier nutritional choices also ripples out to the entire family.
There is a myth that “in order to eat healthy, you have to spend more,” said Estrada, who sticks to a strict budget and has shared what she learned with her college-aged twin sisters. “But in the grocery store, that is not true. We always say that health and finances are a marriage. You have to use that money to create better health habits.”