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Crazy about healthy foods

Andrew Rankin
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, March 12, 2009

INUVIK - You can't help but be moved by Sangita Sharma's enormous energy, especially when the topic shifts to the nutritionist's involvement with Healthy Foods North.

"It's amazing that we've been able to build up so many partners," said Sharma. "I have stopped people in the street and not yet have I met one person who doesn't know what Healthy Foods North is. That's so fantastic."

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Sangita Sharma, UNC researcher, and Lindsay Beck, Healthy Foods North project co-ordinator, pause at the Inuvik airport, on their way to Cambridge Bay to check up on a Healthy Foods project. - Andrew Rankin/NNSL photo

She's central to the success of the thriving local organization that through a variety of means seeks to encourage healthy diets and lifestyles here and in Tuktoyaktuk. It has since expanded into Nunavut.

People are taking notice, whether it's through employees visiting local stores offering free berry smoothies, organizing walking programs, or workshops encouraging people to eat more traditional foods.

The University of North Carolina nutritionist, professor and researcher arrived in Inuvik in 2006 as part of her ongoing global study that seeks to identify causes of cancer, heart disease and diabetes across ethnic groups. In her visits to communities in, for example, Brazil and Barbados, Sharma introduces nutrition programs to try to prevent those illnesses.

Her consultation with community sponsors, health organizations and a local nutritionist helped spawn the Healthy Foods North project here in 2008, which has since developed a dedicated team that works closely with Sharma.

Last week Sharma paid another visit to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk to get an update on the project while holding several community forums.

"These guys at Healthy Foods have done an amazing job," she said. "All the communities are contributing."

She supports eating traditional foods such as polar bear, caribou meat and muktuk, which are packed with food value, and suggests ways to make store-bought foods healthier, too.

"How about putting corn in your soup, adding kidney beans to mashed potatoes, taking dried fruit on the land rather than just grabbing a packet of chips."

With the help of a local advisory committee, Sharma and Healthy Foods North maintains a close connection with the community, ensuring their priorities are met, whether the focus is on promoting healthy snacks one week or cooking workshops another.

Local stores have joined in to provide a venue for healthy food tasting or a new and improved coffee station that offers a skim milk powder alternative to high-fat Coffee Mate.

Sharma will maintain a close connection with Healthy Foods North. She's determined to do more based on the results she sees.

"There's always room for more improvement," she said. "Like everywhere in the world you always want to promote nutrition. You want to promote it for the children and women of childbearing age. You can never give too much information."

Lindsay Beck, Healthy Foods North project co-ordinator, works closely with Sharma and said her contribution to the North is invaluable.

"She brings so much passion to the program and she really is an inspiration to ourselves and the communities we work with," said Beck.