Navigating the sea of American food - Capital Area Food Bank
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Navigating the sea of American food

By Admin May 13, 2008

by Ona Balkus
Assistant Coordinator of Operation Frontline DC, Americorps VISTA

Amid children running around our feet and three languages being spoken in this small living room turned classroom, we discuss with these mothers how they can feed their families and themselves better in a new country. At Parklawn Family Center, we are working with women from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Nepal, among others. Rachel, the amazing site coordinator, watches the children, while our invaluable translator Maggie enables the Spanish-speaking women to participate in the discussion.

The women have noticed their children gaining weight, and have heard that enticing American foods like brightly colored “fruit” drinks, **cartoon-clad yogurt containers, and a 30 foot long cereal aisle might be the culprits. Hearing these women’s stories, I am continually struck with questions: Why should shopping for food be so hard? If you walk into a store with the intention of buying yogurt, meat, bread, and fruit juice for your family, why is it possible that you can leave with piles of sugar and oils in your cart while believing you have found all that you were looking for?
The answers to these questions are multi-faceted, and while I am starting to form some opinions, I can’t point fingers or prescribe solutions just yet. What I can assert is that as the American food system stands now, Operation Frontline’s approach to educate people on cooking and nutrition creates positive, visible change. It’s our mission and passion to empower participants like these women to make better choices about food. We teach them how to read the nutrition facts behind the cartoon characters and the unit prices under the pre-sliced vegetables, with the goal that the next time they are at the supermarket, they leave the store with healthier food and a comparable, if not lower, grocery bill.

Of course, the food should also taste good, which is where Remke comes in. Our tireless chef volunteer has shown them pita pizzas, vegetarian chili, and in this fourth class, a roasted vegetable pasta with a “cream sauce” made of Greek yogurt and parmesan cheese. We eat well here!
During the fifth class, which takes place at the grocery store, the women can put their new skills into practice. First, we tour the grocery store, talking about unit pricing and comparing nutrition information on the back of food containers. The women compare saturated fat content, sodium, and fiber in the products they like. Price increases for convenient food packaging are also notable, such as pre-chopped broccoli versus an entire head or prepared BBQ chickens versus whole raw chickens. It’s important to identify when you are willing to pay for convenience and why you are paying more.

Afterwards the participants receive $10 giftcards to shop for healthy meal ingredients or snacks. I feel a little like a food cop, sending one woman back into the aisles to return the Oreos to the shelf after we look over the nutrition facts together. But when she comes back with a bag full of bananas (on her own accord!), I feel gratified. Each woman walks away with a heaping bag full of healthy food, as well as new detective skills they can use next time they shop.

The grocery store class is always a little sad for me too, as I see the looks of frustration on some participants’ faces as they discover the hidden sugars and fats in their childen’s favorite foods. I am definitely the bearer of bad news, but I hope they can forgive me for it. It frustrates me too that I have to teach these things; that a well-intentioned person can’t walk into a grocery store and leave with nutritious foods that will sustain her family. But with the lessons learned and changes made after this class, I hope these women can navigate the terrain of this new country a little bit better, sharing their new knowledge with friends and families.

** A 4 ounce container of Trix Yoplait Strawberry yogurt provides only 10% of one’s daily value of calcium (1/3 of the calcium in a normal serving of plain yogurt). It also provides 17g of sugar, which is equal to 4 teaspoons of sugar.
Tip: Add cinnamon and brown sugar or lemon juice and honey to plain yogurt—it’s delicious!