Good News for a Change!

There have been times lately when the daily news feed has just been depressing to the point that I will go several days with minimal monitoring of the news.  To continue to follow the news cycle only serves to deepen the malaise that I feel and at times has almost caused me to throw up my hands and say what’s the use.  These past few days have been no exception.  So when I received two particular emails yesterday containing good news my lunchboxspirits were immediately lifted.

The first email came from the Director of Food Services in my local school district, notifying me that the school district’s application to provide free summer lunches to students in our school district had finally been approved.  The school district had applied to serve reimbursable meals under the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.  Any child under the age of 18 will be able to come to the designated location and receive a meal at no charge.  Adults are also able to eat a meal as well for a nominal fee.  The school district will be serving lunches at a convenient, walkable location, 4 days a week from June 20-August 18.

This is the same program that I had been researching last year, with the hope of convincing the school board to authorize the district to apply to be a sponsor of this program for this summer.  When I contacted the Food Services Director for the district to obtain some information for my group’s presentation, she told me the district was already considering this program.  At the time she was just beginning her research, so I was able to provide her with the contact information of the person with whom I had been speaking at the PA Department of Education.  I was very relieved to learn that the school district was already considering this program.  I had been thinking that our group was going to have to do quite a bit of convincing to get this program implemented.  I need to get my background check completed, but once I have accomplished that I plan to volunteer with this program once a week  as well.

The second email I received that buoyed my spirits was the monthly newsletter from thevegetables Food Bank of Delaware.  The Food Bank of DE has received a 3 year grant from Giant Food’s Our Family Foundation.  This grant allows the Food Bank of DE to partner with Delaware Pediatrics in a pilot program entitled “Produce Prescriptions”.  The pilot will allow participating Delaware Pediatrics offices to identify up to 120 families they feel are at risk for food insecurity and diet related health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.  Those families will then be given a “produce prescription” which allows them to receive a monthly allotment of 15-20 pounds of fruits and vegetables from the Food Bank.  These fruits and vegetables will be able to be picked up by the families at the pediatric clinic they attend.  What a great idea!  I have read about doctors and hospitals writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, but this is the first program I have heard about that provides the produce to those who are otherwise unable to purchase the produce themselves.

These emails came at just the right time for me.  Periodically I get very discouraged and pessimistic about what can be accomplished, and in particular, what I can ever hope to accomplish.  While I do not take any credit for the summer lunch program in my local girls eating watermelontown, I am happy to know that I helped connect the Food Service Director with the right person at the right State agency to move the process along.  I’d also like to think that keeping in contact with her over the past few months and letting her know that people in the community supported this action strengthened the district’s resolve to see this process to fruition.  Either way, it matters not.  The most important thing is that kids, who would otherwise be hungry, are now able to get a nutritious lunch 4 days a week over the summer.



Come Together, Right Now, Over Hunger


conference-save-the-date-2015This past Monday I had the opportunity to attend an anti-hunger conference, entitled Coming Together: A Community Response to Hunger, sponsored by the Food Bank of Delaware in partnership with Brae’s Brown Bags and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).  The organizers of this conference took an interesting approach and invited both adults and children to attend, so in addition to all the adult attendees, about 200 students representing several Delaware school districts were in attendance as well.   The speakers included a nice mix of local and national figures.  Panel discussions included speakers from the state government, state and federal governmental agencies, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and local and national organizations working to raise awareness of and put an end to hunger.  The attendees, including the students, were given numerous opportunities to ask questions of the panelists.  I left this conference with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future as a result of the genuine concern and eagerness to help displayed by the attending students.  I also was reenergized to continue my journey to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, I received validation for my assertion that teaching cooking skills to those experiencing food insecurity will provide them with a necessary tool to use in their struggles against hunger.

The person who inspired me the most was 11 year old Braeden Mannering, who is responsible for Brae’s Brown Bags.  In 2013 Braeden attended the Kids’ State Dinner in Washington, D.C.  This luncheon was also attended by First Lady, Michelle Obama, who asked Braeden how he was going to “pay it forward.”  He didn’t have an answer for her that day, but out of his search for an answer to that question Brae’s Brown Bags was born.  Through his3B foundation Braeden distributes brown bags, containing a water bottle, 3 healthy snacks, and a brochure listing contact information for shelters and other aid organizations, to homeless people in the area.  To date Brae’s Brown Bags has delivered over 3,000 bags to those in need.  He hopes to include specialty items, like toiletries, gloves in the winter and books for children, in the future.  It was inspiring to see what could be accomplished by a single person with an idea and the will to see that idea realized.

Not only was I impressed with Braeden, but with all the young people who attended.  One panel discussion was geared specifically for them.  Two State Senators and the Committee Chairman of the DE GOP sat on a panel and answered questions posed only by students.  The students asked well thought out questions on topics including what they could do to best help those who are hungry or whether the legislators would support certain items, like locating a food pantry in every Delaware high school.  Perhaps the bravest question came from a young lady who asked what help and advice they would offer to her and her family.  She stated that even though her mother works 7 days a week, it still isn’t enough to keep them from being hungry.  She completed her question with composure, but broke down after returning to her seat.  The legislators were visibly moved, as was everyone in the room.  It is easy to talk about hunger abstractly, but much harder when you can put a face on it and that face is standing in front of you.

Numerous topics concerning hunger and food insecurity were discussed during the course of the conference, but a considerable amount of time was given to the discussion of childhood nutrition, probably due to the upcoming opportunity to enact a child nutrition reauthorization bill.  On the topic of childhood nutrition, panelists discussed school lunch and breakfast programs, afterschool and summer nutrition programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  Additionally, Dr. Sandra Hassink, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke about the medical implications of poor childhood nutrition.  She remarked that this is the first time in our history that we have both an obesity epidemic and significant incidence of food insecurity occurring at the same time, with the distinct possibility that people could be experiencing both problems.  Dr. Hassink also stated that it is impossible to eat healthy if you do not know how to cook and rely on prepackaged, processed foods for your meals.

Dr. Hassink’s comment about cooking wasn’t the only time that topic was brought up during the conference.  Other speakers and attendees mentioned either the importance of cooking from scratch or the unfortunate loss of knowledge in how to cook from scratch while discussing the importance of good nutrition or the task of helping people with limited resources stretch those resources.  Additionally, the importance of cooking from scratch was discussed at the table at which I was sitting.  Joining me at the table was a registered dietician from Nemours and  a group of women from the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension who staff the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).  This program provides nutrition, cooking and budgeting information to residents of DE who qualify for SNAP, WIC, Head Start or free or reduced school meals.  After listening to all the discussion about the importance of cooking from scratch, I believe now more than ever that my concern over the loss of cooking skills is well founded and warrants further exploration into ideas to help people learn cooking and other related skills to stretch their food dollars and eat healthier.

ghandi change quote


If You Teach Someone to Cook. . .

I have written previously about cooking from scratch, highlighting its decline and noting its importance in stretching food dollars.  Now I would like to share a my vision for the promotion of cooking from scratch, particularly among those who are food insecure.  I have tried to tailor my solutions to what will most likely work within my community.  I currently have two ideas for promoting cooking from scratch.  One is relatively simple.  The other one will be a bit more difficult to implement, but definitely possible.

Often people are hesitant to cook something new because they do not know how to prepare it.  I have heard anecdotal stories about the difficulty of trying to get food pantry clientskale heart to take kale when it was offered last year.  Many people were hesitant to take it because they had never eaten it or prepared it.  They didn’t know what to do with it.  The easiest step to take to encourage people to cook something with which they are unfamiliar or in a method with which they are unaccustomed, is to provide them with a detailed recipe.  These recipes would work for fresh produce and larger meat options like a whole chicken.  I envision them being written in more detail than the typical recipe to accommodate the person who has little experience cooking from scratch.  The recipes would also have a minimal ingredient list or at least include inexpensive and/or easily obtained ingredients.  In addition to offering the recipe, actually having a sample of the finished product on hand for people to try might further encourage them to take the new food item and try it themselves.

Expanding on the idea of providing a recipe, I would like to facilitate a partnership between the food pantry and another entity, like a grocery store or farmer, that would donate one more item needed for the recipe.  For instance, if a recipe for baked chicken was provided to anyone who took a whole roasted chicken herbschicken, partnering with someone who would provide the needed fresh herbs, lemons or heads of garlic, depending on what was needed for the recipe, would be ideal.  The lemon, herbs or garlic would only be available to those clients who took the chicken.  I see a similar paring with those items and various types of produce or cinnamon and a container of oats, but I am sure there are many more parings to be made.

The next obvious step to promote cooking from scratch is to demonstrate to people how to cook by offering cooking classes.  This undertaking will be more difficult in my community as the two pantries I am familiar with do not have kitchens.  To offer these classes these pantries would have to partner with local organizations that do have kitchens, like a church, fire hall or municipal building. These classes would focus on cooking from scratch with whole ingredients and teach a variety of skills, like how to get the most from the ingredients on hand, budgeting and shopping and healthy cooking.

The ingredients used in the recipes for these classes would either be things people might already have on hand, distributed by the food pantry or inexpensively obtained at a local grocery store.  The classes would include a cooking demonstration as well as nutritional information and cooking tips and shortcuts when applicable.  I would also like to see informational classes that did not necessarily involve a cooking demonstration provided as well.  These classes would cover topics like the importance healthy eating and how to achieve it, meal planning and creating a shopping list, and strategies for stretching your food dollars.

CM cooking classI am not reinventing the wheel here.  Emergency food providers across the country are already doing most of this and more.  Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end child hunger in America, has a program called Cooking Matters.  Through this program parents, caregivers and children learn about cooking, budgeting and decision making food skills to get the most out of their food dollars.  Many larger food banks across the United States offer Cooking Matters programs through their facilities.  Additionally, other large food banks have developed their own programs, as is the case with the Food Bank of Delaware.  Their program does not have a cooking class component, but it does offer informational classes to low income participants on some of the topics outlined above.

As I go forward on my journey I will endeavor to advance these ideas in my community.  The first area on which I will focus my efforts will be compiling recipes to be distributed.  In addition to recipes provided by food panty staff and volunteers, I hope to encourage those clients who do cook to share their recipes to be included in this undertaking as well.  As I gather recipes, I will share some here and I encourage those of you who like to cook to share your favorite recipes.  Provided they meet the criteria stated above, I will gladly share them with food pantry clients. recipe card