Arnell Hinkle’s experiences as a restaurant chef and organic farmer led her to pursue a degree in nutrition. She quickly realized that environmental changes were needed to facilitate individual-level behavior change, and decided to focus on public health nutrition. She worked on anti-hunger and chronic disease initiatives for several years before founding Communities Adolescents Nutrition and Fitness (CANFIT). The non-profit, which celebrates its 20 anniversary this year, is dedicated to increasing healthy eating and physical activity opportunities for low-income youth of color and the communities they’re in, with a focus on afterschool and community-based settings. Her deep commitment to collaborating with communities to improve nutrition and physical activity make her a public health hero.
Career in Profile
- 1990-1991 – Senior Health Education Specialist, Contra Costa Health Services Department, Martinez, California
- 1991 – 1993 – Project Coordinator, Contra Costa Health Services Department, Martinez, California
- 1993 – 1995 – Program Director, CANFIT
- 1995 – 1998 – Director, CANFIT
- 1999 – Present – Executive Director, CANFIT
- 2003 – Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leader Award
- 2007 – Mary C. Eagan Award, Public Health Nutrition, American Public Health Association
- 2008 – Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellowship
- 2010 – Ian Axford (New Zealand) Public Policy Fellowship
What inspires you and the work that you do?
There’s a real dichotomy between what we’re fed and what’s possible. Many people have very little choice available to them. Economics and other social determinants limit their choices to “which fast food should I eat?” instead of “the breadth of wonderful foods available.” We try to make sure that people have both the skill and education they need to make healthy choices, and also the availability of healthy choices and safe places to be active.
On a personal level, my life changed when I participated in an afterschool program in St. Louis that brought kids from all over the city to participate in afterschool and summer activities. I was surrounded by so many people with different ways of being – I remember one of my friends eating a cucumber sandwich. I had never seen anything like it! They shared it and it was good, and I thought, “Wow, you don’t have to have bologna on sandwiches?” It was a radical moment for me. So I’m aware of the importance of exposing adolescents to other ways of being, and this is one reason our work at CANFIT focuses on afterschool programs. Especially in communities with challenged school systems, afterschool programs become a place where adolescents can form positive youth-adult interactions, do project-based activities, and just be themselves. CANFIT makes sure that those are also healthy environments, and uses them as a place to work with young people.
Your career has taken several turns along the way, but is there a particular success or highlight that you are proud of?
We’ve been performing trainings with high school kids around sugar sweetened beverages, and as part of the training we show a video that we co-developed with youth, called PHAT (Promoting Healthy Activities Together). PHAT uses hip hop culture to talk about healthy eating and fitness. PHAT showcases youth talking about the importance of eating well and being active, what’s available in their neighborhood, and ends with a dance video. To create the dance video, we worked with DJs to get clean hip hop beats, some young people came up with the rhymes, and a hip hop choreographer worked with after school programs to develop a dance routine into a dance video. It’s youth speaking to youth, and 6 years later, young people can still relate to it. I’m proud of the work and products that we’ve developed over the years because they speak to youth and youth culture, and are still relevant to youth.
Now we use the video in our trainings as a “hook” or conversation starter. Youth see the film and get ideas, and then we work with them to develop action plans around decreasing sugar sweetened beverages in their communities or for themselves or their families.
Switching gears, what are the challenges you’ve faced or continue to face?
CANFIT also works in the policy arena, and I find that I have to be bilingual, bicultural. I’m always aware of how to frame things to appeal to which audiences. So, if I’m with a group of teenagers I might say it one way, and if I’m with a group of funders or policymakers I have to say it another way, and you constantly have to go back and forth between those two vocabularies in order to function in both of those worlds. I think that grassroots-grounded experience versus academia is always a challenge. People come up with these great ideas that aren’t always necessarily grounded in community and so you constantly have to be the conduit, the reality check. That’s a challenge. You want to strike that balance, so that research is not just on the community, but for the community, and also works within the community – not just doing research because its convenient to do the research.
The funding is always a challenge. Because of the way foundation dollars work, you have to shift from project to project, because most places don’t fund general operating costs. We’re often a training ground for staff; after a couple years with us, they get scooped up by state health department or the county health department. Because we maintain a network of former colleagues and can bring them in for specific projects, we’ve added a strong “consultation and training” component to our organization. So we try to maintain a lean operating machine and make it work that way.
Is there a persistent public health problem that still concerns you today?
I’m concerned about all of the social determinants of health, like whether people have a livable wage and safe places and education, income. So much of what we do in public health could be solved if people had higher wages and more education – well, a better quality of education.
In terms of the work that CANFIT deals with, I think we need to take a look at the cost of things – especially the hidden cost of things. For example, it drives me crazy that the food industry gets tax breaks for donating unhealthy foods to food banks. If our health values were more aligned with our economic practices, our practices might be in better shape.
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