Jefferson County Drug Court Clients Transform their Eating, Nutrition Habits Through UAPB Program

A University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) program is equipping clients of the Jefferson County Drug Court Program with healthier nutrition habits, said Marcie Johnson, drug court advisor/counselor for Pine Bluff Adult Probation. Once a week, the program’s clients, first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes, attend nutrition and cooking classes hosted by the UAPB 1890 Cooperative Extension Program at the UAPB campus.

Johnson said Pine Bluff Adult Probation enhances public safety by enforcing state laws and court mandates through community partnerships and evidence-based programs that hold offenders accountable while engaging them in opportunities to become law-abiding, productive citizens.

“Jefferson County Drug Court is a program of second chances,” she said. “Our clientele enter a very structured program for a minimum of 18 months. During that time, they have random drug tests, attend court once a week, participate in both group and individual counseling sessions and are responsible for completing homework assignments. All of this is intended to help them get their lives back on track in a way that lasts.”

The program clients are all required to have full-time jobs or be full-time college students. They receive assistance in obtaining GED diplomas or drivers licenses and have access to financial planning services and outside counseling. They also regularly meet with designated mentors with whom they discuss abstinence from drugs or alcohol and learn communication techniques that help them cope with life’s challenges without resorting to substance abuse.

“Upon successful completion of the program, our clients’ criminal records are expunged,” Johnson said. “This allows them to move forward and be productive citizens and family members. It really is a win-win situation.”

Instilling healthy habits

Johnson said her organization’s partnership with UAPB began after Courtney Fisher Williams, UAPB Extension program aide, reached out to her in 2018 and suggested ways they could collaborate.

“People entering drug court often have challenges when it comes to healthy eating habits,” Johnson said. “I was immediately interested in the possibility of collaborating with UAPB to give our clientele the opportunity to learn about nutrition and how to cook easy, healthy meals.”

Since the partnership’s inception, UAPB Expanded Food and Nutrition Education (EFNEP) program aides have conducted lessons from a curriculum titled “Families Eating Smart, Moving More,” as well as from the U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate program. The participants learn how to read food labels, make healthier choices at restaurants and decrease sedentary behavior through physical activity. They also learn about the importance of food safety practices, portion control, the reduction of sodium and sugar in daily eating and ways to stretch their food dollar.

The cooking classes

Johnson said her program’s clientele attend interactive cooking sessions once a week at UAPB’s Extension auditorium, which is equipped with a demonstration kitchen. They are able to interact with the EFNEP aides and ask questions about cooking, see firsthand how healthy meals are prepared and sample the dishes.

“Once the participants started to understand how fun it can be to cook – to cut up the vegetables and follow the preparation steps – the cooking classes quickly became the talk of the office,” she said. “It was an easy sell after that. Everyone started looking forward to Wednesday and wondering what dish they would learn to prepare next.”

Johnson admits there was one caveat that several of the participants were not prepared for – salt, or the lack thereof.

“Some of our clients were shocked when some of the healthy meals they cooked called for different types of seasonings but lacked salt,” she said. “Some said they did not know how to cook without salt, so they started sneaking little packets of salt in. It was very funny. But in the end, everyone was pleasantly surprised to learn how tasty some low- or no-sodium meals can be.”

Johnson said one participant started regularly cooking meals she learned to make at the sessions for her grandmother, who had been on medicine for high cholesterol for years.

“Imagine their surprise when they showed up for one of the grandmother’s regular checkups at the doctor’s office, and it turned out her cholesterol drastically decreased,” she said. “The doctor even took her off the medications.”

Other clients have been eager to cook for their family members thanks to the sessions too.

“The cookbook we use is a hot commodity,” Johnson said. “For a while, after each lesson, we were having to make a lot of copies of the individual recipes and menus because everyone was asking for them. Now, at the end of the program, everyone receives the cookbook, as well as a set of cooking utensils.”

An opportunity to bond

Johnson credits Williams and other Extension program aides with encouraging the program clientele to get their children involved in their new cooking and nutrition routines.

“Because the meals we make are simple and straightforward, this is a great opportunity for parents to ask their children for help in the kitchen,” she said. “They can help prepare the ingredients and learn how to chop vegetables. Even seeing how a whole onion is chopped into little pieces and then added to the dish is a great learning experience for them.”

This type of collaboration with children can go a long way in forging stronger familial bonds, Johnson said.

“We try to show parents how they can interact with their children in healthy ways,” she said. “Once they graduate from our program, for some parents, getting back to their families and living more productive lifestyles can be like starting from scratch. At this point, they are able to develop an almost entirely different relationship with their child. I have heard very heartwarming stories from our former clients about the ways they are now able to spend time with their children in more meaningful ways.”

Showing their drug court clients healthy ways to have fun and bond with their friends does not stop at cooking classes, Johnson said.

“Asking someone to change their lifestyle is a big deal,” she said. “When we ask our clients to make this kind of change, we have to show them alternatives. One of the alternatives we introduce them to is the excitement of sporting events.”

Johnson and her staff regularly bring their clients who have started living clean lifestyles to UAPB football and basketball games.

“For many adult clients, this is a totally new experience. Most never got to attend little league sports games, much less play in them, and they grew up in environments where drug use was common,” she said. “Attending sporting events like this and realizing it’s something they can share with their families and children is huge. They always absolutely love hearing UAPB’s Marching Band (M4). Seeing the excitement on their faces is priceless.”

Moving forward, stronger than ever

Johnson said she is inspired by clients who completely transform their lives after graduating from the drug court program.

“One client came into our program with a 4th grade reading level,” she said. “She got to work and earned her GED diploma and then went on to enroll at Southeast Arkansas College. She has completed several different programs and earned two associates degrees.”

Johnson said clients like this have the power to motivate others to change their own lives for the better.

“This particular client won a writing contest for an essay that detailed her transformation,” she said. “Thanks to her achievement, she was able to participate in the “Parade of Transformation” at the Arkansas Specialty Court Conference in mid-April. She is now getting ready to start a nursing program and obtain Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) certification.

Johnson said she encourages other clients to continue their education. She has scheduled several campus tours for those who expressed interest in attending courses at UAPB.

“All the staff members and a judge working for Pine Bluff Adult Probation are UAPB alumni,” she said. “We promote UAPB as the college to attend. The clients love the environment and feeling of being on campus.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.