NRPA is supporting out-of-school-time programs at 50 park and recreation agencies across the country through a generous grant from the Walmart Foundation and as part of its Commit to Health initiative. One of those grantees is the City of Portsmouth, Virginia’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Leisure Services, where participants are always in for a healthy dose of information and fun, compliments of Justin “Farmer Jay” Bowens. Bowens, a Portsmouth Parks and Recreation employee since 2008, makes it his mission to impart important life habits related to healthy eating and physical activity to Portsmouth residents, and makes a point of doing it in an entertaining and effective way.
Parks & Recreation Magazine: How does your own personal experience help you in your work and what lessons from your own life do you use to teach kids about healthy eating and physical activity?
Justin Bowens: As a child, I spent most of my life growing up with my single mother. We were a typical low-income Portsmouth household, so I can easily relate to a lot of children who deal with some of the same struggles. Because my mother worked two jobs for many years, my dietary habits were built around processed freezer meals and large amounts of fast food. Over time, these unhealthy habits turned me into a very overweight teenager. At 19, I was close to 300 pounds and diagnosed with hypertension with the risk of a heart attack. It was not until I met my wonderful wife in 2011 that she and I decided to lose weight together and live a healthier lifestyle. At 22, I began a quest for knowledge to understand how I got to be so unhealthy. Once my wife and I began our transition to a healthier lifestyle that involved quality cooking at home more, eating out less and regular workouts, we noticed the pounds began to disappear. I can proudly say that I have lost more than 100 pounds (my wife also lost more than 90 pounds) and we are both currently off all medications. My weight-loss journey has truly shifted my professional priorities from just helping children to helping children eat and live healthier lives.
P&R: What is the most important advice you give to people about being healthy?
Bowens: Through my nutrition program, Food 4 Fuel (my children nicknamed it Triple F), I teach about the importance of food being utilized as energy or “fuel” for our bodies, and not just for pleasure. What you eat regulates how well you perform and operate throughout the day. I teach how better quality food or “energy” will equate to a better performance, especially in relation to school, athletics and recreation. I explain it to them through the analogy of a car and the fuel that is recommended. If we constantly take shortcuts for our health, our bodies will no longer operate, just like that car.
P&R: What is the biggest challenge in your work?
Bowens: My biggest challenge would have to be the lack of involvement from some of the parents. Although I have a few who are very dedicated to keeping their children healthy, others not only do not care about the issue, but some even teach their children that it is OK or acceptable to be overweight. Essentially, I realize that the children’s eating habits will not change unless their parents make a committed effort as well.
P&R: What do you like most about your job?
Bowens: The results. Watching children apply the information that I taught them and make an effort to eat healthier is worth more than any paycheck I could receive. At the beginning of the summer, I documented that most of the children either threw away their fruits/veggies or put them in the share-box to give to someone else. By week five of teaching nutrition lessons, I began seeing a drastic change in their eating habits. Supervisors from various centers would share with me how effective the lessons were and the produce was starting to be eaten more than the chips.
Marla Collum is NRPA’s Manager of Grants and Partnerships.