You all may have noticed that my activity on the blog and Facebook page has dropped off somewhat in the last two weeks. This is because I have started my summer internship at the InterFaith Food Shuttle and I’m significantly more busy than I typically am during my normal semester, and it’s tough to find time to write.
Fortunately, part of my internship requires blogging about my experiences, so I’m going to share my blog with you all so you can see what types of things I’m learning as part of my MPH program here at UNC. The entries will be modified somewhat on this website, since I feel more free to express my true opinions about certain things as far as nutrition goes. Obviously I’m not going to be quite so brash about my disdain for certain nutrition policies when writing for my coursework, but on this blog I’m more comfortable being outspoken about how I feel.
I don’t feel this is the fault of anyone at UNC, but rather a symptom of the overall nutrition environment in this country that is still stuck in the low-fat, grain-based dietary recommendations endorsed by the AND and the US government. I hope one day it will change, but for now, I need to work within these guidelines as a student.
I hope you all enjoy reading about my experience this summer, I think it will be an eye-opening one for sure!
On our first day at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS), my classmate and I were given a brief orientation from one of our internship mentors, who is a recent MPH graduate from UNC. She explained to us a few of the different projects we might be able to get involved in over the summer, and asked us questions about our interests regarding possible projects. She gave us a tour of the small office areas, as well as the large warehouse where all the food collections are stored.
We sat in on a lunch meeting with our ‘official’ RD preceptor, where she met with the farm and garden coordinators about important topics for the next two weeks. A large component of the meeting was volunteer management, which takes up a lot of the coordinators’ time. They also had to discuss donations that they were anticipating, and what the restrictions on these donations were. Following the lunch meeting, my classmate and I watched a variety of PowerPoint and video orientations, both about the organization itself and about Cooking Matters, which is the national program created by Share Our Strength used to teach low income families about cooking healthily. We reviewed instructional materials for this curriculum, since one of our major projects over the summer will be to teach a full Cooking Matters course to a group of teens working in the Young Farmers Training Program.
On our second day, we arrived early to tag along with a volunteer who drove a refrigerated truck around to different grocery stores and restaurants in order to salvage perishable food items that were destined for the garbage. The stores coordinated with IFFS in order to facilitate pick-up of these food items, and we stopped at eight different sites, including a retirement community, a few Harris Teeters, a Big Lots, a Pizza Hut, and even a Starbucks. We tracked the temperature of the truck at each stop, as well as the estimated weight of each type of food product donated from each store.
While most of the donated food was baked goods or bread products, I was glad to see there was a decent amount of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as unprocessed meat products, that were donated as well. We ended up collecting over 700 pounds of food in just three hours, and the route we were on typically sees up to 900 pounds of food donated every day. This made me realize how important this food recovery service is, because without it, the food we collected would have just gone to waste, and many people in the community would have gone hungry.
In the afternoon, we helped pack food into Backpack Buddies backpacks, which are given to children of low income families for the weekend to ensure that they have food to eat over the weekend. Approximately 1,700 kids get backpacks every week, and the backpacks contain canned meats, vegetables, and fruits, as well as instant noodles, juice and milk boxes, instant oatmeal, and granola bars. Not my ideal selection of food for obvious reasons, but I’d rather see a kid get fed something than go hungry for two days. It was nice to hear that this program has a waiting list for volunteers, because much of the work done is manual labor that requires a lot of man-hours.
Thursday was a bit of a slower day, since one of the coordinators we were supposed to meet with was out sick. We helped one of the RDs in the nutrition division find ingredients she needed for a Cooking Matters class she was teaching that day. We often had to make substitutions when certain items couldn’t be found, since the classes rely largely on donated food items, and finding exactly what the recipe calls for can be tricky. I was impressed with the amount of variety in the warehouse, and we were able to find enough food for both the recipe preparation as well as ingredients to send home with participants so they could practice the recipe at home. This will be something that Anne and I will have to do every week in order to prepare for our Cooking Matters classes, so it was a good introduction to scavenging the warehouse for essential food items.
We also organized and inventoried the bin of cooking utensils (e.g pots and pans, knives, cutting boards, etc.) that we will be using during our class. They had a lot of nice donated All-Clad items, which was impressive. We were given a quick run-down of the Shopping Matters program, where participants are given a tour of the grocery store and instructed on how to shop for healthy foods while staying within a budget. I thought that this program sounded really useful, especially the Shopping Matters for WIC Participants program, since many people may not know where to find healthy foods or how to discern the most cost-friendly products using per unit prices. In the afternoon, we watched more Cooking Matters and Shopping Matters instructional videos, and browsed the online database of materials and tip-sheets for optimizing the teaching program.
On Friday we observed two Cooking Matters classes. In the morning we observed a Cooking Matters class for adults who had been recruited at the local soup kitchen, and most of the class members were overweight. First, the RD gave a nutrition lecture on whole grains, and taught participants how to look for whole grains on labels. (As a disclaimer, I obviously don’t think grains are a particularly healthy food product, whether refined or whole!) As part of her lesson, she distributed cereal boxes out to class members and asked them to determine whether the cereals contained whole grains.
This experience showed me just how deceptive food labels can be. For example “multigrain” just means there are different grains (wheat, corn, oats, etc.) but they do not need to be whole grains. Often times sugar was the second ingredient, even in “whole grain” items. I thought this was extremely important for these participants to learn how to read labels, because cereal boxes are extremely deceptive and often have health claims as advertising that obscure the truth about the unhealthy qualities of the product. Cereal is one of those products where manufacturers have really capitalized on advertising to make their products seem like health foods. It’s a little bit disgusting, really.
Many of the participants seemed very confused by the labels: for example, one participant thought a bag of Cheetos was a whole grain (and therefore healthy) product. This, of course, is not the fault of the participants, but rather the cereal and snack manufacturers who have developed ways to promote their products as being healthy using deceptive labeling techniques. I think this is an important issue that should be tackled by government regulations, but there is a lot of pushback from food manufacturers. It’s clearly a sticky situation.
In the afternoon we observed a Cooking Matters for kids graduation at a local elementary school. We played “beach ball jeopardy” where we passed a beach ball around a circle and asked jeopardy questions on nutrition subjects such as how to shop for healthy foods, how to make healthy choices when eating out, why breakfast is important, and the MyPlate guidelines. While the MyPlate is not ideal as we know, I do think it’s a little bit of a step up from the Food Pyramid. At least in this case, grains are designated as a quarter of the plate, rather than the base of the pyramid. This doesn’t change the fact that the government recommends 6-11 servings of grains per day (unbelievable), but at least when educating people I can call that the ‘starch’ group and make sure they understand that it should not comprise the bulk of their food intake for the day.
We then cooked sweet potato fries from scratch, which was challenging for these boys mainly because of the difficulty of cutting the sweet potatoes. I realized that knife skills will be very important for us to teach our group when we run a class, and I want to brush up on my own skills before teaching our students. After cooking the sweet potatoes, we observed the end-of-class graduation ceremony. Each child received a chef’s hat, measuring cups and spoons, a Cooking Matters certificate, and a book of simple recipes. This ceremony was important because it helped the children to appreciate what they learned in class and to encourage them to continue practicing their skills at home. After the boys left, we helped the volunteers wash dishes and put the materials away. There was generally a lot of prep work and cleaning up after class, and it was challenging to make sure that the class finished on time, especially when working with kids. These will be factors that Anne and I need to pay attention to when organizing our own class.
The most meaningful event for me this week happened on Tuesday, where we were exposed to the types of foods that were collected and distributed to the needy members of the community. While picking up foods at the grocery stores, I was somewhat disheartened to see that the majority of the food items were things that I would not consider healthy whatsoever: doughnuts, pastries, cakes, and cookies comprised the majority of our food donations. Additionally, much of the food we sent home in backpacks were also pretty junky overall: instant Ramen noodles, canned spaghetti and meatballs, sugary granola bars, etcetera. While the volunteers and employees of IFFS were not under the impression that these were healthy foods, they were aware of their limitations in donation collection, and were happy to have any food that they could get for free from the various donors.
While participating in this food recovery and distribution effort, I had to significantly question my values as far as nutrition goes. I tend to be a bit naive when it comes to food insecurity, since I have almost always had access to fairly high quality food during my life. I really had to think hard about my feelings about distributing this unhealthy food to the underserved members of the community. On one hand, I was somewhat disgusted by the poor quality of food that we would be providing these people, particularly the needy children, and was dismayed that we would be giving nutritionally deplete food to people who truly needed better nutrition than this.
On the other hand, I realized that at some point, it would come down to a person having a doughnut to eat or nothing; could I really say that I believed they’d be better off having no food at all? I had to question my values in this case, and I came out with the understanding that many times, people in poverty do not have the luxury of choice when it comes to their food, and must take what they can get, even if it’s ‘unhealthy’ by my standards. This is something that I believe must be addressed by public health professionals, since many of our food assistance programs do not provide high quality, perishable foods to those in need. I think the IFFS does an incredible job of sourcing fruits, vegetables, and fresh meats when they can, and is innovative in their provision of farm-fresh items as well as growing their own produce on IFFS sponsored urban farms and gardens. It’s a great model that should not only be imitated in other communities, but should be supported by government funding in order to ensure that the bulk of emergency and supplemental foods provided to low-income families are higher quality and more nutritionally complete.