When it comes to eating healthfully and staying active, not all neighborhoods are created equal.

USC Fit Families is among the dozens of programs that benefit from the Good Neighbors Campaign. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

USC Fit Families is among the dozens of programs that benefit from the Good Neighbors Campaign. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

The community just east of USC’s Health Sciences Campus is one of L.A.’s many food deserts — low-income areas where affordable, nutritious food can be hard to find, particularly for those without a car.

“There are literally no grocery stores and no gyms,” said area resident Angelica Reyes, 24. “Learning to live healthfully in those circumstances can be very challenging.”

Reyes hopes to help by working as a community liaison for USC Fit Families, a free service that helps low-income children — ages 7 to 17 — and their families, develop healthy eating and exercise habits.

Fit Families began in 2005 and has been financially supported by the Good Neighbors Campaign for 10 years.

The Good Neighbors Campaign raises money every October from USC faculty, staff and friends to give back to the neighborhoods surrounding the University Park and Health Sciences campuses in meaningful ways.

On Saturday mornings, the USC Fit Families team — composed of Trojan physical therapists and volunteers, many of whom are students from the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy — heads to Hazard Park for the weekly meetings.

Each session begins with health assessments and measurements to gauge participant progress.

Afterward, the families take part in stretching then physical activity, including circuit training, soccer and basketball.

“When you see pictures from the program, all the participants are smiling and really enjoying themselves,” Reyes said.

Each meeting ends with nutritional counseling. Typical lessons include learning to read food labels or adding fruits and vegetables to meals. The group also cooks a healthy recipe using seasonal ingredients.

A daughter of street vendors, Reyes first took part in Fit Families as a participant, hoping to learn better exercise and nutrition strategies. She was so inspired by the program that she became a staff member.

“Seeing a shift in the way the families behaved has been really inspiring,” Reyes said. “You see children asking for healthier food options and then telling you stories about how instead of watching TV, they went out for a family walk or hike. You see they’re actually learning, and it’s transformative.”

Reyes hopes USC Fit Families could eventually add another meeting a week to its schedule or incorporate new sites to accommodate even more low-income families from across Southern California.

“It’s really important for the community,” she said. “If we could do more outreach and tell them about the program, it would drastically change the living situations of so many people.”

— John Hobbs

For more information on USC Fit Families, visit pt.usc.edu/fit_families/.

 For more information on the Good Neighbors Campaign, go to goodneighbors.usc.edu.