Child Obesity

Making the Healthy Choice the Easy One

Fighting unhealthy school lunch options with a can-do attitude

By Catherine Matusow September 1, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Jasmine Opusunju, executive director of healthy eating non-profit Can Do Houston

At some point during our conversation with Jasmine Opusunju, we can resist no longer. We pull out an HISD school lunch menu and ask her what she thinks. She hedges a little, tacitly acknowledging that the pizza, nuggets, and burgers on offer aren’t great choices. Then again, she knows HISD has challenges: long-term contracts with vendors, the difficulty of changing food habits, lunchrooms throwing uneaten fruits and vegetables away. 

Opusunju, a native Houstonian whose mother immigrated to the US from Nigeria, grew up eating not burgers and nuggets but healthy stews, pepper soups, and fufu, which made her an interesting and perhaps inspired choice for Can Do Houston. The organization, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting childhood obesity, named Opusunju its executive director in January. 

“People would come to our house, and they were like ‘Oh my God,’” she tells us at West Alabama Ice House, her voice fighting ridiculously loud music on a ridiculously hot afternoon. The people were Nigerian expats, and the thing that made them invoke the deity was Opusunju’s mother’s cooking, made up of hard-to-get ingredients—dehydrated vegetables, yam flour, spices—that she’d sourced back home and had sent to Houston. Word quickly spread through the Nigerian community. “They were missing their food because they didn’t have access to it.” 

Opusunju couldn’t have known it then, but food access would come to define not only her childhood but also her education—she has a DrPH degree in Health Promotion and Behavioral Science from UT’s School of Public Health—and her career. Her Can Do gig means she’s constantly out and about in places like the Fifth Ward, Independence Heights, and Magnolia Park. “It’s funny,” she says, “because it’s still about an access thing.”

In fact, Opusunju’s biggest hurdle has not been convincing residents to make healthy changes—she sees them “get ignited around it” all the time—but helping them find the foods that change involves. Those who don’t have cars, for instance, must patronize establishments within walking distance, and more often than not those aren’t supermarkets but fast-food outlets.

The food desert problem is particularly acute in the Northside and Fifth Ward neighborhoods, a problem that Can Do plans to fight by creating community and school garden programs and then working to get local corner stores to sell part of the harvest, with the money earned going right back into the gardens—a program the organization is expanding after piloting it in Sunnyside. “We want to see that full circle happening within the communities,” Opusunju says. “Just make the healthy choice the easy one. That’s what we really focus on, and that will naturally reduce obesity.”

Make the healthy choice the easy one—it’s both her battle cry and mantra, a call she first heeded in childhood, when those strangers gasped with delight at the smells in her family home. “They said, ‘If you could bring it in, we will pay you,’” she remembers. “They desired their own food, which is natural and healthy. They didn’t want to eat the food here.” Which is how Ntoafrica came to be, an import/export business that her family started in their garage. Then as now, the establishment distributes African and Caribbean foods to stores large and small. 

Can Do’s other major aim, not surprisingly, is to get kids (and their parents) moving—and this objective too is traceable to Opusunju’s family. Mom was a runner, and three of her four children, Opusunju included, went to college on a track scholarship. 

Opusunju, who occasionally travels to Nigeria to visit family, says that if she could, she’d import to Houston the natural, healthy food and the active lifestyle she’s witnessed there. The country has its problems, of course, but “you don’t see obesity there.”

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