Wanda Ocasio Nelson

Wanda Ocasio Nelson Wanda Ocasio Nelson (second from left)

Wanda Ocasio Nelson’s passion for proper nutrition, physical activity and enhancing the lives of impoverished families shines in her work as a nutrition education program assistant for Purdue Extension.

Based in Indianapolis, Nelson has taught hundreds of Marion County families about healthy diet and exercise.

“I serve mainly limited-income, Latino families,” Nelson said. “I can use my language (Spanish). I am a fanatic for nutrition and fitness. I can use all of that. It’s ideal for me.”

Nelson’s free classes have met virtually and in-person at agencies like Women’s Care Center. Some classes are in English; most are in Spanish. Every class ends with some physical activity, usually in the form of salsa or merengue dancing.

Some of Nelson’s recent classes have taught the importance of reading labels on food products as well as knowing proper serving sizes. Nelson reported most of her students were unaware of the importance of reading labels and in relation to serving size, moderation is the key. She hopes this knowledge spreads among their own families and the Hispanic community in central Indiana.

What drives you to work with the community to better health?

I want women to do things they’ve always dreamed. I always wanted to run a marathon and at age 46, I did my first marathon. At age 48, I became a triathlete. In 2016, I did RAIN, which is the Ride Across Indiana. I push myself physically and eat healthy. I have a passion for teaching others healthy living so when I got this job, it was my dream come true job. Also, I could use my language and teach the community that it’s never too late to fulfil their own dreams. It’s never too late to become healthier. It’s never too late to learn to eat properly. It’s never too late to start to move throughout the day. The Purdue Extension Nutrition Education Program gave me the opportunity to spread the knowledge to my Latino people.

Another inspiration is my father. He is 99 years old and still living in Puerto Rico.

What is a health tip that most of your clients were unaware of?

They get impressed when I talk about the different types of fat. They usually don’t know about saturated versus unsaturated. I carry these test tubes with saturated fat. If you eat four ounces of burger with cheese on it, I show the amount of saturated fat, which is pretty much a solid fat at room temperature. They are usually surprised at the amount of fat in such a small amount of food.

Eating and being healthy requires a lot of thinking and a lot of self-control. I always tell them “baby steps. You’re not going to change your life when you go home tonight.” It has to be baby steps.

What are you most proud of during your years with Extension?

Reaching these limited income families. Most of them are immigrants and they just came from countries where they are not offered any formal education. They come and sit down, and I really connect with them. We are Latinas. Once you meet somebody, you give a hug and a kiss, and it will be “We are friends forever.” That friendship allows them to get closer to me and they ask more deeper questions, which produces more connection and learning. I feel privileged to be able to spread the word of good eating to limited income participants that come from different Latin American countries.

How do your clients react to your lessons?

Some of them are people that can’t write or read, but they come to me so happy and grateful that I’m taking the time to teach them. Every class is a different accomplishment, but the overall is the same idea: These people are so happy and grateful that Purdue Extension has this program free of charge, and we can reach them. They feel like they have an education they wouldn’t have had in their home country.

What are some future goals for your nutrition work?

I just want to be able to keep doing this and keep reaching as many people as I can. The more we reach, the more impact there can be on their lifestyle, and hopefully we can reduce this epidemic of overweight families and children. Sadly, Hispanic children are the most obese children in Marion County. I have a job to do working with their parents.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? What do you think is important for people to know about Hispanic Heritage Month?

We are part of this society and part of this beautiful, wonderful nation. I’m happy we are celebrating the diversity of different Latin Americans.

Written by Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu