Peer Health Exchange L.A. Executive Director Amita Swadhin

Episode 105

Video Transcript

Jackie: Welcome to Food Exposed where each we talk about the story
behind what’s on your plate. I’m your host, Jackie Keller. And
today we’re talking about teenagers. You know, whether you have
one, you are one, or you know one, listen up.

Thirteen to seventeen can be a really confusing age. It can be
confusing for lots of reasons, but particularly with respect to
body image and self-awareness.

Here are some interesting statistics from the World Health
Organization. Forty-three percent of the world is currently
under 25; about 16 million girls age 15 to 19 give birth every
year. An estimated 150 million young people use tobacco. Alcohol
use starts at a young age; 14% of adolescent girls and 18% of
adolescent boys age 13 to 15 use alcohol. In any given year
about 20% of the adolescents will experience a mental health
problem. Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people.

And despite our cultural obsession with diets and being thin, obesity
is increasing among young people in both low and high income
countries. Nearly two-thirds of premature deaths and about one-
third of the total disease burden that we experience as adults
is related to health practices that start in our youth years. So
clearly establishing good health practices at a very young age
is especially important just for the health of our population as
a whole, and for us as we age.

And for that reason I am very, very privileged to welcome today our
guest. Amita Swadhin is the Los Angeles Executive Director of
Peer Health Exchange, and she has dedicated her practice and her
business model to helping students and young people learn more
about their bodies and deal with these issues. Amita, welcome to
Food Exposed, and thank you for coming today.

Amita: Thank you so much for having me, Jackie.

Jackie: Tell us about Peer Health Exchange. You know, we don’t hear
about it very much; just tell us.

Amita: I like to think that we’re the best-kept nonprofit secret in
the world. We are a national organization. We have been in
existence for ten years. We’ve been here in Los Angeles for five
years, and our model is basically empowering teenagers to make
healthy decisions. We do that by training college student
volunteers to teach a comprehensive health curriculum in high
schools that lack health education and in which a majority of
students come from low-income households.

Jackie: So you recruit college kids to volunteer to go into high
schools, to go back, and relate to ninth graders?

Amita: Yes, that’s right; we’re specifically in the ninth grade. We
know that so much changes for a teenager in that ninth grade
year. They are often facing going to parties for the first time
with much older kids. They are actually making decisions around
whether to have sex, around whether to use drugs, or alcohol.
And in general facing a lot of the self-esteem challenges that
you talked about. So it’s a pivotal year and that’s why we
target the ninth grade.

Jackie: So what are the biggest challenges that you face with this
group and with the model that you’ve established?

Amita: I think that there are a lot of good things about the model.
Teenagers listen to their peers much more than adults. You could
have the best teacher in the world, but I’m 35 now and I’ve been
in the classroom since I was about 19 as a Peer Educator.

Jackie: Wow!

Amita: And so I really believe in the model, because I’ve seen a
shift. When I walk into a classroom now to observe our college
volunteers there is this hush, and people are like, well, who’s
this lady? Why is she here? Whereas our college students, you
know, they are in hoodie sweatshirts, they’re in some jeans.
They are 18 to 21 and able to captivate the classroom right
away. And it’s really compelling; we have a lot of data on our
impact on the teenagers and how they actually grow in their
knowledge and skills from the workshops that the college
students are presenting.

Jackie: That is just wonderful. And what about the bureaucracy, I mean.
L.A. is a big place. I know you’re a national organization. But
your area of responsibility is this big monolith that we call
Los Angeles. Tell me about bureaucracy and how does that affect
your work?

Amita: You know, I’d like to answer that on two different levels. So
first, we are a county; I think it’s taken some time for our
national organization to really wrap their heads around, you
know, we are not just Los Angeles City. There are 81 school
districts here.

Jackie: Oh my God. I’m a native and I didn’t realize there were that
many school districts in L.A.

Amita: Yes, and we’re the largest county in the United States. So just
thinking through which teens are we going to serve here, and why
it is a challenge in and of itself. This is our fifth year in
Los Angeles, and we’ve started with LAUSD. And I think LAUSD has
its own challenges and I think also that the need is not as
obvious as in some of the smaller districts within L.A. County.
So a lot of people don’t realize that LAUSD actually has a high
school graduation requirement around health education. Now that
doesn’t necessarily mean there is a certified health teacher at
every LAUSD high school.

Jackie: I can speak to that, because my kids are LAUSD kids, and it
hasn’t been that long since they’ve been out of high school. And
they both had health education in their classroom, but neither
one was taught by a health ed teacher.

Amita: Yes, and so you know exactly what I’m talking about. So I think
part of our challenge is that we sometimes get high school
principals reaching out to us directly within LAUSD, saying,
“Hey, you’re a free program. We need this program here. Come and
serve our students.” And we don’t always have the permission of
the district to do that. So that can be frustrating at times.

I think on the flip side, because L.A. is huge, even within LAUSD a
lot of people don’t realize that we actually have the largest
number of charter school students in the country.

Jackie: Wow!

Amita: There are a lot of exciting and innovative things happening in
education nationwide and L.A. is kind of a hot bed for that. So
these are Title I public schools, low income public schools that
are not able to afford a health education teacher; so that’s
largely who we partner with now. We have 25 high school partners
this year within LAUSD’s geographic districts.

Jackie: That’s a lot of schools. How many students do you serve?

Amita: We’re reaching over 3,000 ninth graders this year with 300
college student volunteers from U.S.C., U.C.L.A., Occidental,
and Cal State Northridge.

Jackie: Now are you looking for more students, more schools, or more
volunteers? How can the community support what you do?

Amita: Yes to all of the above. We get calls from district
administrators and teachers and even this summer there was a
ninth grade high school student in Long Beach Unified, and
health education recently got cut there about two years ago from
what I understand, who heard about our program in some summer
research project she was doing and said, “Can you come and serve
our school?”

Jackie: Wow!

Amita: Obviously that’s compelling; you don’t want to ever say no to a
teenager who is saying come and help me, and that’s what our
program was founded to do.

I think some of our constraints are around having the network of
supporters and revenue that will let us grow at a rapid enough
pace to meet the need that’s there. We’ve had a waiting list
every single year that we’ve operated, and we are trying to
broker relationships with districts beyond LAUSD now since there
are 80 other ones. But we are looking for board members; we’re
looking for adult mentors for our college volunteers.

We are building a talent pipeline as a secondary impact in addition
to empowering the teenagers themselves to have the knowledge and
skills to make healthy decisions. We have this cadre of 2,000
volunteers throughout the country this year; about 7,000
throughout the ten years that we’ve existed, who are now
interested in public health and public education as a career. So
we are looking for mentors for them. And we’re looking for
relationships within community partnerships and school districts
that can help us grow and serve even more teenagers in L.A.

Jackie: You have such a full plate. What’s the biggest challenge for
you personally with all of that?

Amita: That’s a great question, you know. I got into this work for
some very personal reasons. I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse
and domestic violence.

Jackie: Wow!

Amita: And I’m very public about that, because I think in order to
really be a good role model for teenagers we have to de-
stigmatize the reality that a lot of young people are facing at
home. And so for me a challenge is a lot of our supporters like
to pull our curriculum apart. There are 11 health topics that we
teach; nutrition and physical activity is one.

Jackie: Right.

Amita: But they say, “I’m really interested in this one topic and I’m
going to support you in that one topic area.” And I think the
reason that I was drawn to Peer Health Exchange is that we’re
such a holistic model. We teach about rape and sexual assault
prevention and treatment. We teach about mental health. We teach
about safer sex for a lot of the reasons that you listed in the
statistics that you went over. You know, a teenager can’t pull
apart the effects of body dysmorphia and poor self-esteem.

Just being about the food and the drinks that they put into their
body every day, of course, that’s a big part of it. But I think
you also have to help young people really care about themselves.
And so what’s challenging for me is knowing how much access to
healing that I’ve had and really wanting to find a way to
provide that in as holistic a manner as possible for the teens
that we’re serving.

Jackie: Well you great work and what a wonderful, wonderful opportunity
it is for the community to get to know a little bit more about
you; and realizing that that is a free resource for a body of
people that don’t have access under normal circumstances to the
kind of information and the quality delivery method. I know that
there is a lot of research that goes into your curriculum.

Amita: Yes, there is.

Jackie: And one of the things that I was hoping to share today is just
some fun, easy, quick ideas for school lunches. Even though it’s
not everything, we do know that nutrition and healthy
nutritional practices are the base of a lot of learning that can
happen. So I thought today we would take a quick look at some
easy, fast, nutritious, delicious, school lunches and see what
we can throw together.

Amita: I’m excited about this, especially because the teens that we
serve are often living in neighborhoods that, you know, we talk
about food deserts and access to good produce, and so I’m really
excited for you to show us something that any teenager in any
community in Los Angeles can make.

Jackie: This is pretty simple.

Amita: Okay, great.

Jackie: Well, let’s go cook.

Amita: Great.

Jackie: Well, it’s time to cook, Amita, and what I thought we would do
today is prepare a really, really simple dish that basically
anybody can make, any age. Now we’re talking not just high
schoolers; I’m thinking of starting even younger with this one.
And the other nice thing I liked about this dish is that it’s
inexpensive, and let’s face it, we need affordable food. It
can’t be about what the wealthiest can afford; it has to be
about what anyone can afford.

So that’s why I chose this dish. And also it has some great
nutritional properties, because it’s a balanced meal and so what
we’re creating is something that’s high in fiber, high in
protein, low in fat, so it’s going to be good for heart health.
It’s going to be good for brain functioning. It’s going to have
a high satiety value, so this is something that will stick with
students of any age, and adults as well, and really kind of fuel
you for the day.

Amita: Great. I’m excited. I think I’m going to learn something, and
I’m not the best cook, so if I can do it I think any teenager
can do it.

Jackie: Well, this is simple, trust me. You know, there are a couple of
key ingredients here; one of them is enchilada sauce. Now we
don’t make our own, I mean we make our own, but we don’t
advocate that everybody has to make their own. What you do need
to know, though, when you’re choosing enchilada sauce is that
it’s a combination recipe of whatever the manufacturer chose to
put in it. So even though a brand may be expensive, it doesn’t
mean that it’s necessarily more healthful than the next brand.

And one of the key things with enchilada sauce is the sodium content.
And so, what you want to do is always as you’re shopping for it
pick up the can, look at the nutrition facts label and check to
see that you’re selecting one that has as close to 140
milligrams per serving as you can get, or less; because that is
the legal limit for a low-sodium product. And what we’re looking
for, particularly with the under-served populations, is a way to
minimize the risk of high blood pressure and the resulting
illnesses that can complicate heart health.

So low sodium enchilada sauce, and then the other key thing, of
course, is having whole wheat. When we want grains and we want
whole grains in the diet, so whole wheat tortillas or corn
tortillas, which are also whole grain, would work in this
recipe, because there is a lot of different ways we can make it.
But if you are going to go with the flour product you want to
make sure that it’s based in whole grains.

Amita: I love that you’re bringing this up; this is exactly how our
nutrition and physical activity workshop is structured, just
simple every day choices that a teenager can make, knowing how
to look for whole grains, low sodium count.

Jackie: Yes, look at this one, not that one. That’s very simple. And
then of course, depending on how hot you like your food, whether
you put in chilies or you don’t put in chilies; this is a
jalapeno chili and it’s fairly mild. If you take the seeds and
the veins out, the heat is not in the flesh, it’s in the seeds
and the veins. So you want to make sure that you seed and de-
vein those.

So it’s really simple; I’m going to spray our skillet with a little
bit of extra virgin olive oil spray. And you can find this in
every grocery store. And let’s get some meat in there, before we
burn this thing. Actually, I think I’ll put a few chilies in

Amita: Great.

Jackie: And do you like it spicy?

Amita: I’m Indian American, so I do like spicy foods.

Jackie: All right. So just to take a little bit of the heat off, there
we go.

Amita: We’ll be getting the smoke alarms going in here.

Jackie: Yes. It’s this induction cooking, so we’re just going to get
something in here so we don’t burn the stuff. I have precooked
ground turkey with some enchilada sauce, so that’s as simple as
it gets. You brown the ground turkey, add a little enchilada
sauce to it, and the rest is just in the seasoning. I have some
fresh tomatoes . . .

Amita: Just chopped up.

Jackie . . . just chopped up. And these can come out of a can, but I
would suggest that–and let’s turn this down–that fresh is

And once we have this going here, and the meat by the way, when you
start with raw meat it does cook very quickly. So what I like to
do is make a big batch of the meat, and then I freeze some of
it. And these are really inexpensive little food safe
containers. You can buy them in a sleeve of 25 from Smart &
Final. They cost almost nothing. And what I like about them is
they’re designed for food, you know, they’re not like a
margarine tub that you have left over that you put leftovers in.
It’s really designed for food and they freeze beautifully; they
stack up. They are really inexpensive.

And we’re also going to add in a little bit of a salt and sugar free
spice blend. This is one of my blends, but it’s like a chili
powder. And I like it because I thought of it.

Amita: I would imagine you’d like it.

Jackie: But you can use any kind of chili powder. So again, depending
on whether you’ve added chilies into the mixture or you like
your hot and spicy, what I’m really trying to emphasize here is
don’t add salt. We’ve got a little bit of sodium in the
enchilada sauce; we chose a low-sodium one. We made a good
decision there, so why would you then turn around and add more
salt to it? If you want flavor add spices, but don’t add the

Amita: And I heard you say stay away from sugar, too, right?

Jackie: Absolutely. And you know, one of the things that you don’t
realize is that these spice blends are again a combination of
whatever the manufacturer chose to put into them. So a lot of
times you’re not even aware that the first ingredient might be

Amita: You have to read the label.

Jackie: You’ve got to read the label. Now we’re ready to make the

Amita: Great.

Jackie: So this is where you come in.

Amita: Okay, I’m ready. I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

Jackie: Okay. So you’re going to take a tortilla, a flour tortilla, and
we can just grab one, a nice soft one. And then we’re going to
put in it some of our meat.

Amita: Okay.

Jackie: And we can add a little bit of low-fat cheese to that.

Amita: And the low fat part is important I’m guessing.

Jackie: Because the fat that’s found in cheese is highly saturated milk
fat, and you don’t need that milk fat. I mean, the fact of the
matter is that it’s like having whole milk, drinking whole milk
as adults we know that’s not good fat for us. We don’t need that
fat. So reduced fat cheese is like drinking reduced fat milk.
And the lower the fat content the better. What we’re looking for
is good melting properties, and good flavoring properties, and
this cheese has both without that highly saturated fat.

Amita: Great.

Jackie: You can add a little bit of lettuce to that if you want, but
you have to go easy; because once it gets too full–I’m kind of
setting you up here.

Amita: Oh, great.

Jackie: Don’t take it personally.

All right, so now the burrito wrap. Start with the sides, fold in
both sides, okay. Add a little bit more space, because what
you’re going to want to do is now fold the bottom up, and roll
it the rest of the way.

Amita: I’ve got it.

Jackie: All right, so you see what happens when you over fill it?

Amita: Yes, I over filled it.

Jackie: Now turn it upside down real quick and squash it.

Amita: Squash it? Okay. Great.

Jackie: So kind of what you’re doing here is you’re sealing it so that
the cheese will melt and kind of seal the burrito.

Amita: Got it.

Jackie: And then it is a little messy to eat.

Amita: You are totally setting me up; this is going to be fun.

Jackie: But the other thing I wanted to point out is that this is the
burrito and not everybody can have cheese; not everybody can
have wheat. But let’s say you loved the idea and you just wanted
to nix that. You could just make a taco salad out of it the same
way by taking a little bit of your lettuce and then you could
add a little bit of your meat on top, and some tomatoes to your

Amita: Great.

Jackie: And if you wanted to, because as you said, you like it spicy.

Amita: I do like it spicy, that’s true. And so these are just fresh
chopped jalapenos?

Jackie: Fresh chopped up jalapenos, and there you go. And it’s just a
simple little taco salad, and now of course the proof is in the

Amita: Oh gosh. I’m going to try the taco salad so I don’t spill
burrito all over myself.

Jackie: I did set you up.

Amita: It’s good.

Jackie: Is it spicy enough for you?

Amita: If I get the jalapeno right in there, yeah.

Jackie: Yes.

Amita: Okay, great.

Jackie: Again, an example of a very inexpensive meal. This can be made
for pennies, literally and can be made ahead, put in the
refrigerator; you grab it when you’re ready to go to school, and
it’s there for you.

Amita: I love that there are simple choices in each of the ingredients
that teenagers can make to be healthier; even if they’re
preparing the simple meal it doesn’t have to be fast and

Jackie: Absolutely, and you know what, if you didn’t have the money for
the meat or you chose to not have animal, you could just do
black beans with this, and the whole recipe would work just as

Amita: Just checking for the sodium, right?

Jackie: There you go. So, Amita, I know that the audience wants to be
able to find you, they want to be able to follow Peer Health
Exchange, and they want to stay connected to you. What’s the
best way for them to do that?

Amita: Well we have a website, and we also
have a Facebook page that anyone can click like and I encourage
you to do that to keep up with our posts about our volunteers
and our teenagers; just Peer Health Exchange. And then if you
want to follow me on Twitter I’m at @ASwadhin.

Jackie: Well, thank you so much for coming today. It was really a
pleasure and I look forward to staying connected to Peer Health
Exchange myself, and staying current with what you’re doing.
It’s great work. Thank you, thank you, thank you for dedicating
yourself to the community the way you have. We really appreciate
it and God knows we need it, right? So have a great afternoon
and continue the good fight.

Amita: Thank you so much, Jackie. It was great to be here with you

Jackie: My pleasure.

Research shows us that our self-talk really influences how we behave.
Basically, we have our own inner dialogue and it drives our
behavior. And this is truly any age whether you’re an
adolescent, whether you’re an adult, whether you’re a child, we
talk to ourselves and that makes us do what we do.

So what’s the best way to get yourself to do something? Well,
research shows us that giving yourself permission to do
something as opposed to dictating behavior is really what’s
going to make a difference in how the outcome is read.

For example, if you say to yourself, “I will go do this,” it’s like
you’re forcing yourself, like you’re compelling yourself, as
opposed to saying, “I’m thinking that I might go do this,” or “I
am considering going and do this,” and giving yourself
permission to make that decision. That’s really what’s going to
influence your behavior, that’s what’s going to make you want to
go do something, and as a parent and as an educator, as a coach,
I see this all the time. If you tell people, “The decision is
yours, you’re in control, you’re in the driver’s seat,” either
you want to do it for yourself or you don’t, you’re going to
make that decision based on you own inner motivation. We do
better when we’re motivated internally than when we’re motivated
externally or compelled externally.

So the message is: your self-talk drives you, give yourself
permission, give yourself autonomy, give it to the people around
you, give it to the people you love, and everybody will be
happier, and behaviors and outcomes will be much more positive.
That’s my talk today. That’s my coaching moment. I hope you’ll
watch the show, I hope you’ll share with friends and family, I
hope that it helps you, and I hope you’ll tune in next week for
another episode of Food Exposed.

For more Food Exposed, check me out on and until next
week remember make food your best friend and exercise your
companion for life.