Thursday, September 23, 2010

Work Update: The Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Project

by Kara

It’s September. The leaves have started changing, it’s getting colder, I’m consuming way more hot beverages everyday, no longer wearing just short-sleeves to work, and trying to get my work up and going again. Like many other PCVs my time this summer was an alternating mix of intensive work – summer camp – and  intensive rest. Now that the school year has started it’s time to restart my 9ish to 5ish schedule and put away my flip-flops, tank tops, and cotton skirt. I’ll admit, my work at my organization has gotten off to a bit of a slow start. However, I do have one project which is helping to keep me pretty busy: the Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Project.

Last spring my sitemates (Zaneta and Sarah) and I came up with a fairly elaborate grant proposal (for Peace Corps standards) with the small hope that we’d get funded. To our surprise, the Millennium Challenge Account decided to award us money! I think we shared in unison the response of, “Wow! Yeah! ...Oh crap” – realizing we had to make all the stuff we wrote about a reality. Fortunately, we have a great project team. Zaneta finished up her two years of service and left but we got an equally awesome replacement – Tim. He’s taken her spot at the Health Department. And Sarah is still a teacher. Together, with our counterparts, we make up a nice cross-sector project, combining health, education, and child development (that’s me).

So what does the project actually entail? Well first, we’re training student and teacher trainer teams to teach “healthy lifestyles” lessons to all public school 10th grade students from November to May. Second, we’re doing a couple of trainings with school cooks about nutrition and new cooking ideas. (All elementary students get a free meal/snack daily.) Third, this will all culminate with the first annual Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Fair next May. The fair will have cooking contests, a community walk and run, a poster contest (ala “what’s your anti-drug?”), a jeopardy-style knowledge competition, and perhaps diabetes testing and heart disease testing. The goal of this whole thing is to reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (the top killers of Mongolians, the latter being the number one killer of people worldwide) by encouraging healthy lifestyles amongst youth. We’re focusing on eating healthy, the importance of exercise, and the risks and consequences of drinking and smoking.

Why focus on these things? Primarily because that's what the funders wanted. A little background though... The Mongolian diet traditionally consists of meat and dairy products that are high in fat content. This is because Mongolians were traditionally (and about 30% of the population still is) nomadic herders. Being nomadic doesn’t allow you with the time to plant crops and harvest them. However, your animals are always present, which produce said meat and dairy products. Plus, even though you’re eating a lot of fat, you live a very active lifestyle and you burn it off. Now, more and more Mongolians have moved to the aimag centers (provincial capitals) and the city and live sedentary lives – engaging in less physical activity but continuing to eat foods high in fat. Also, while people in the aimag centers have the advantage of having year-round access to fruits and vegetables, they also have access to processed foods, high in trans fats and generally less healthy. In addition, smoking and especially drinking are huge problems (22% of men are alcohol dependent, 39% of men drink at a hazardous level) and both are big risk factors for heart disease.

Anyway, we’re really just getting started but it’s a pretty cool project and our fingers are crossed we can pull it off!

Here's an example of the traditional dairy products I referred two. These are two varieties of aarul -- dried milk curds. They were made in June and have been drying out and hardening all summer. These were given to me yesterday as a thank you from a local English teacher for helping her with her English.

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