Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Food & Money

Recently I was teaching a nutrition class to food bank clients and after introducing MyPlate asked them how they meal plan to ensure balanced meals. One client explained that he simply did not have the money to plan out meals in the traditional manner but based his meals around items from the food bank. We then spent some time sharing ideas and clever ways to build easy, affordable and healthy meals around a few staple foods. The exercise was a useful reminder that while some of us can decide exactly what type of meals we want to eat (ie. what am I in the mood for?), others must work with what is available.

The class was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch Food Stamped, a documentary about a couple that takes "the food stamp challenge" for a week, spending around $1 per meal while trying to eat healthy, well-balanced meals (read a nice review with great food budgeting tips here). The film features Shira Potash, a nutritionist who teaches cooking classes in low-income neighborhoods, and her filmmaker husband Yoav, who appear to be West Coast liberal Jews (not unlike me) with a preference for locally sourced organic foods. They do their shopping at Berkeley Bowl where they quickly learn some tricks to procuring free food. They hoard free samples, buy in bulk, painstakingly compare prices, forego many of their favorite foods, foray into dumpster diving and generally spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. For Yoav, in particular, food is always on the brain. He is never fully satisfied after a meal, and at the end of the project when the couple consults with a dietitian about their week's intake we are told that he has not eaten enough calories. Despite all their efforts and nutrition knowledge, they learn that for food stamps to provide the supplemental nutrition they are intended to requires a great deal of thoughtful planning and savvy shopping. Most people lack either the time or the know-how for such an endeavor.

As if that's not enough of a barrier, today the New York Times published a piece about Michael Bailey, a county health worker trying to improve diet and lifestyle habits among low-income residents of Oklahoma City.

Mr. Bailey argues that poverty is a big barrier to prevention. Hand-to-mouth living and the short-term thinking that often goes with it means many people are shopping at gas station minimarts where junk food is the staple. Exhausted mothers may let their children fend for themselves in such stores with food stamp swipe cards.“If you ask, ‘What would help your health the most?,’ people say, ‘More money,’ ” Mr. Bailey said.

And yet, a recent study shows that low-income families cook most of their meals at home and do not obtain them from fast food joints, as is commonly believed. When Share Our Strength released the findings they emphasized that most families are looking for ways to prepare easy, healthy meals for their families. (In another study last year fast food purchases were found to be more common among middle-income Americans.) Their Cooking Matters program aims to do just that, equipping teens, adults and families with the skills and resources to cook on a budget. (Full disclosure: I volunteer with Cooking Matters.)

Source: Share Our Strength

Emergency food programs like food banks, and supplemental programs like SNAP (food stamps) and WIC provide a tremendous net for many Americans.  While they help reduce hunger and the anxiety of food insecurity, it is only with additional education and training that they can be effective as nutrition and health promotion programs. To revise the old adage: Give a man a meal and he eats for a day. Teach him how to cook healthy meals on a budget and he can reduce his risk of chronic disease and dependence on the healthcare system for a lifetime. Or something like that.

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