It’s a strange — and tragic — paradox in our country that one of the side effects of poverty is obesity. With so many options on the shelves of supermarkets, the cheapest eats are most likely to be nutritionally empty but calorie-dense fare. You can combat hunger for only a few cents by buying food that contains the most refined, processed ingredients available.
I’ve often wondered how we, as a society, can turn this around. In New York City and other large cities, there are neighborhoods that are referred to as “food deserts” because of the difficulty of finding markets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. The most accessible foods are the potato chips and soft drinks found at the corner bodegas. And while it seems like a simple-ish thing to bring in fruits and veggies to replace some of the shelf space in these bodegas or to park a produce cart on street corners, there’s still the problem that a lot of people — rich, poor, or somewhere in between — don’t know how to cook and are intimidated by the sight of vegetables in their raw form.
A few years ago I spent some time working with a woman who was trying, in her small way, to create a home-like environment for teenagers who didn’t have much of a home to begin with. One of the things she did was to cook and eat dinner with the teens in her program on a weekly basis. Few of the kids had experience actually preparing food, and there was much guidance offered for even the most basic of kitchen skills. But it was something that would, potentially, teach the kids to be more self-sufficient and healthy.
I was reminded of that experience as I read an NPR story about JuJu Harris and her efforts to help those needing public assistance learn to feed their families well when they have such limited resources. Ms. Harris has lived through the experience of feeding a large family on a tight budget herself and has the ability to reach others who are struggling through similar situations. She recognized the fact that even if fresh, seasonal food was brought into the “food deserts,” many people wouldn’t know how to prepare them.
She started small by teaching her neighbors what she had learned about cooking, then expanded her circle as the culinary educator and SNAP outreach coordinator for the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in Washington, D.C. She drives their Mobile Market bus, talks to the moms who buy from her, and offers tips on how to prepare and store the produce that might have otherwise been too intimidating for them. She even put together a small cookbook — which has since been expanded and developed into a full-fledged cookbook available to the public — she could give them.
I admire Ms. Harris tremendously for her resourcefulness and her willingness to reach out and share her hard-earned knowledge with others. And I hope that her story inspires a greater effort to not only stock the food deserts with more healthful, fresh, and seasonal fare, but to teach the people how to prepare it. Give a family a healthy meal and they eat for a day, as they say, but teach them to cook and they eat — and eat well — for a lifetime.
Photo credit: Molly M. Peterson