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African Tree Focal Point of Healthy Eating Campaign

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, October 24, 2011
Mollie Charon is one of three UC Davis Medical residents helping to sift dirt and build planter boxes for a new community garden in the town of Linda.  Thousands of Moringa tree seeds will be planted in those beds. Charon says the tree might help break the cycle of obesity because the tree provides what the body can't make on its own.

CHARON: "The essential amino acids must be taken in through your diet and so having a vegetable that provides all the essential amino acids is a really valuable thing."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says poor diet causes many people to become obese and malnourished at the same time.  Food without the proper nutrients actually causes the body to go into famine mode…which means it stores fat.  

Two years ago, Jamie Ports was on the other side of the world in Malawi Africa.  As a Peace Corps volunteer, she was introduced to the Moringa tree.  All parts of the tree are used for food. 

PORTS:  "We were propogating the tree and then I was doing nutrition trainings. One: how to actually harvest the tree, and dry it and pound it and then how to include the product that they pounded into their diets and how to prepare it.

In Yuba County, 65 percent of the population is obese.  Linda is a poor, barely-developed town that typifies some of the worst living conditions the county has to offer, including 17 percent unemployment.

Jamie is now working with Americorps to bring her knowledge of nutrition to the town of Linda...and to Rachel Farrell's Eating Well Cafe.  Twelve years ago, Rachel was a physician's assistant who saw preventative medicine was more valuable than traditional treatment in some cases.

FARRELL: It took me two minutes to see that giving people penicillin was sort of a band aid to living conditions that were sub-optimal.  If I gave a kid with asthma medication and he went home to black mold and smoking parents and was exposed to second-hand smoke, anything that I was doing was just sort of superfluous."

She opened up the non-profit Harmony Health Clinic and then a birthing center and then the café.  But, as Rachel and Jamie found, getting people into the habit of healthy eating isn't that easy. 
PORTS: "We did cooking classes with teen mothers and a lot of them just never had access to foods both for money and education-wise, they didn't know how to prepare it, they didn't know what to do with it.  They never had vegetables in their diet growing up."
If all goes according to plan, those teen mothers will soon have Moringa tree leaves and bark products in their diet.  Jamie asked Greg Evans of Moringa Farms in Los Angeles to donate 2,000 seeds and two dozen trees to the café and to the community garden
Evans sees this as a great way to spread the word about a product he says is also commonly used for medicinal purposes in Africa.

EVANS: "You can extract the oil from these as well and you can use the oil for skin diseases and for cuts and abrasions."

Rachel and Jamie hope the tree is also the financial salve for a café that is not making money.  Jamie's recent acquisitions of a donated stove, oven and blenders may also help as they expand the café's menu considerably. 
The hope is the café can start generating a profit, which can then be used to hire a cook, expand hours, and ultimately, turn the café into a healthy community center with good food made in part from the Moringa tree.  From there, Rachel and Jamie want to start…  giving trees away.

PORTS: "We were thinking it would be wonderful to get this going here.  We could give community members their own trees if they want them.  Eventually, they could start growing it at their house, preparing it in their meals, and if we do nutrition training out of the café, then they could start learning about it and hopefully become empowered to have healthier diets." 

Moringa Farms says the only downside of the young trees is their inability to handle frost.  But if they survive their first winter, the trees' branches can be broken off and stuck in the ground where they will grow new trees. 

Jamie and Rachel hope every Moringa tree will provide the seeds for a reversal of the history of obesity in the town of Linda.
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